In Stacey Lee’s young adult novel "Under a Painted Sky," two fugitives from the law travel west on a journey to find freedom from their pasts. Samantha is wanted as a murderer and Annamae is a runaway slave. The women disguise themselves as men and learn the true meaning of survival in the dangerous West. Along the way, they encounter and befriend three boys, whom they begin to view as their family. They work together to protect each other at all costs on their journey.
In her story, Lee engages both the past and the present by updating a familiar genre – the Western – with a modern perspective inspired by the need for diverse books. For example, she addresses the struggles and challenges of gender roles in scenes where the girls are forced to adapt to the “Old West.” They have to straddle the horse instead of sitting side-saddle and they struggle to care for their feminine hygiene while undercover. At one of their stops, a midwife sees through their disguise and shows solidarity among women by providing them with necessary sanitation materials. “Andy” and “Sammy” realize they must adjust their façade to ensure they will not be revealed to their companions. Despite their pseudo masculinity and superficial identities, the women form emotional ties with each other and the young cowboys. The women no longer see them as a threat, but as part of their chosen family.
Lee weaves this theme of chosen family together with scenes of adventure and survival. While on the Oregon Trail, some of the boys and Andy fall ill with cholera. In order to save her friends, Sammy bravely helps an injured member of a dangerous gang in exchange for help. Just as Sammy saves her friends, they similarly risk their lives for her. The novel’s themes of family, acceptance, adventure, and survival work together nicely as a nod toward archetypal western conventions, while still maintaining a contemporary perspective for young adult readers.
Lee’s "Under a Painted Sky" will appeal most to middle and high schoolers, though many adults will also enjoy its adventurous plot and accessible characters. The novel addresses mature themes, without going into graphic or violent detail. For example, the story opens with a malicious landlord attempting to rape Sammy. He fails, and is killed accidentally, but these violent events are subtle, rather than detailed. Lee focuses instead on Sammy’s resilience, determination, and sense of justice, which inspire her to escape with Annamae. Although the gravity of violence and slavery could be handled with a bit more emotional depth, the focus on action works well for the novel’s intended audience of young adults. All of Lee’s themes work together to produce a contemporary novel about diverse protagonists making a family that works, while still addressing the foundations of the western as a genre.
“Under a Painted Sky” by Stacey Lee is published by G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers.
Reviewer Bailey Young is the undergraduate intern for the Center for American Literary Studies at Penn State.
As a part of Centre County Reads, “Under a Painted Sky” author Stacey Lee will discuss her novel on April 6 at 7 p.m. at the Nittany Lion Inn in State College. WPSU’s Eleanor Klibanoff will moderate the event.