Samantha, a Chinese American, and Annamae, a runaway slave, flee West towards California. Annamae is running from slavery and to find her brother, while Samantha is fleeing an accidental crime. Both girls are looking for a new start and freedom that they just can’t have in Missouri in 1845.
The girls disguise themselves as boys-Sammy and Andy- and join a band of three young cowboys for protection. The group romps through the Western genre: learning to ride horses and shoot guns, a stampede, a treacherous river crossing, animal attacks, dysentery, a fiddle/banjo battle. This book is seriously fun, and gives opportunity for the girls to use their own skills as well as learn new ones from the cowboys. Along the way they meet abolitionists and musicians, gold hunters and criminals, and many groups of people fleeing west for opportunity or freedom. Each character brings a cultural asset to the story- a refreshing reminder that the westward expansion wasn’t just a white Protestant story.
“After a thousand miles of trail, it seems to me that good luck is always just a few steps ahead of bad, and maybe the amount one receives of either simply depends on the distance traveled.”
As the girls are pursued by the law, violent men in the wilderness, a supposedly murderous gang of escaped slaves, and their own grief, they become close friends. They also become close with the cowboys, but must always keep their real selves hidden. There are some laughs here, but also a decent look at gender norms as explained by young folk on the frontier. Sam and Andy’s experiences allow the reader to explore grief, xenophobia, racism, and misogyny. Though the book has moments of intense violence, including the underlying violence of bigotry, Under a Painted Sky is ultimately about was can happen when people are kind. What gets our two characters to their surprising but happy ending is goodness in unlikely circumstances and from unlikely people, the beauty of music and storytelling, and the determination and friendship of two brave young women.
This is a fun adventure that has a diverse cast of characters, explores time period issues through a race and gender lens, and shows the power of female friendships! A great book for teen readers* and adults.
Scent Notes: warm leather, violin polish, and rain on hot dirt
*CW: Book has more than one attempt at sexual violence perpetrated by adult men against young women. Also death, slavery, and murder are a regular element.