I've never been much of a gamer, but I absolutely loved playing Oregon Trail when I was in grade school. Many kids of my generation have fond memories of sitting in front of an Apple IIe or similarly cutting-edge, mouse-less computer and trying our luck at virtual pioneering. You could choose to be a wealthy banker and outfit your wagon with as many supplies as your oxen could carry, but that didn't prevent Mary from getting snakebit or John from developing dysentery. The Trail was ruthless, favoring only the strong (and those with the dexterity to shoot pixellated rabbits).
What if, instead of setting out on the Oregon Trail with a fully stocked wagon, you were a young Chinese-American girl on the run from the law, accompanied only by an escaped slave girl and your treasured violin? In Under a Painted Sky, Stacey Lee transforms the usual “heading West” narrative, imbuing it with some much-needed diversity and freshness.
Samantha lives with her father in Missouri, where they operate a general store and scrape out a modest living in their adopted home country. But everything changes for Sam in a single, terrible day, and she is forced to leave town and elude the authorities who would apprehend her. She meets Annamae, a slave girl trying to reach freedom and reunite with her brothers, and the two decide to stick together and help each other out. Dressed as boys and calling themselves Sammy and Andy, they head West, claiming to be joining in on the gold rush.
Their disguises are put to the test when they encounter a group of cowboys headed in their same direction. Sammy and Andy decide they'll be able to make faster progress if they travel on horseback with the boys, but it's a delicate balancing act to keep their true identities a secret. Of course, the Trail poses its own dangers, and the band of travelers will come up against some very real threats.
Lee really builds the suspense as the end of the book approaches, and she doesn't shy away from depicting the sometimes brutal reality of pioneer life. I was invested in all the characters and could hardly wait to find out how—or if—they would survive the journey. I've read a couple really good YA selections this year, and Under a Painted Sky belongs high on the list. It has the perfect combination of adventure, history, culture, and even a little romance. Great summer reading.