Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Under A Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

Under A Painted Sky is a story about friendship, identity and the meaning of family. Set in 1849, it was Chinese-American author Stacey Lee's debut novel in 2016.

The day started out like any other for fifteen year old Samantha Young, the daughter of a Chinese dry
goods merchant. Her father had leased their store, the Whistle only six months earlier after moving them from New York City to St. Joe, Missouri,  the jumping-off point for wagons heading west to California.They left New York to start a new life in California after his Portuguese business partner gambled away their business. To that end Samantha's father had given his friend Mr. Theodore Trask her mother's precious jade bracelet. Then Trask unexpectedly came to the Whistle last month, leading a wagon train of seven. Before Trask left, Samantha's father gave him the bracelet. She had no idea what Trask was going to do for her father in California.

The Whistle's wood building is crammed with bolts of fabric, so Samantha and her father live at the back of the store. While her father works in the store, Samantha spends her days giving violin lessons. At five o'clock as she hurries home after a day of lessons, Samantha smells smoke. To her horror she discovers the Whistle a charred heap, the fire still burning strong enough that people are carrying buckets of water. Her father is dead, leaving Samantha to face the world alone.

Their landlord Ty Yorkshire seems sympathetic to Samantha's plight and offers her a room at one of his places,  La Belle Hotel. When she arrives at the hotel, Miss Betsy orders her Negro servant, Annamae to take Samantha up to Room 2A and clean her up. Annamae gives Samantha a bath but shortly afterwards Ty Yorkshire enters the room. He proposes that in order for Samantha to pay off the "debt" she now owes due to the fire at the Whistle, she work as one of his prostitutes. Samantha refuses and while resisting Yorkshire's attempt to rape her, causes him to slip and hit his head on the edge of the bathtub. Believing she has killed him, Samantha with the help of Annamae, moves Yorkshire's body to the bed and decides to flee St. Joe. Samantha tells Annamae she's going to California to find Mr. Trask who was helping her father. Annamae informs Samantha that she also was planning to escape this very night as Yorkshire was going to turn her into a prostitute. Since she's missed her "Moses" wagon to freedom, Annamae decides to flee with Samantha.

Samantha suggests they dress as two young men out to make their fortune in the gold rush. The girls dress in men's clothing stolen from the brothel's laundry and into a saddlebag they put Yorkshire's Colt Dragoon pistol, his powder horn, two gold rings and a few dollars. They then sneak out of the hotel and down the street with the intent of crossing the Missouri River that night.

Samantha knows they have to be on the last wagon to cross the Missouri otherwise they will never get out of St. Joe. The long line of wagons means they must somehow sneak onto the last wagon that will go across this night. Samantha creates a diversion so that she and Annamae slip quickly into the first wagon, hiding among bags of feed. The driver of their wagon is Mr. Calloway who is trying to catch up with his family. They decide to stay in the wagon which travels through the night. The next morning Calloway is stopped by Deputy Granger who tells him that "A Chinese girl bashed a man's head in last night" and that she is the daughter of the careless Chinaman whose shop burned down. Although Calloway hasn't seen the two girls, he does allow Granger to search his wagon. Samantha and Annamae slip unseen out of the wagon and into the protection of a nearby weeping willow.

Alone on the prairie the two girls open up to one another. Annamae tells Samantha that she has lived in St. Joe for four years after being in St. Louis. She has two brothers,Tommy who died when he was seven and and older brother Isaac whom she recently learned would meet up with her at Harp Falls. Her family was split when she and Tommy were sold to Yorkshire and Isaac to some unknown place. Andy's goal is to travel to Harp Falls to meet up with Isaac while Sam intends to catch up to Trask on the trail. Annamae suggests she cut Samantha's hair so she looks more like a boy. Their plan is to follow the Oregon Trail to California.

When they stop to eat, three young men, two white and one Mexican arrive on horseback with a fourth horse. The green-eyed boy is Cayenne Pepper, Cay for short, his cousin West and their Mexican wrangler, Pedro Hernando Gonzalez or Peety. Samantha introduces herself as Sam and Annamae as Andy. Sam and Andy tell the boys they are heading west to where there's gold, while Cay reveals that they have just moved one thousand head of cattle to St. Louis and are heading to a job in California.

Sam and Andy strike a bargain with the three cowboys to take them to the Little Blue River, riding the extra horse.  The cowboys seem friendly and Sam wonders if they should have bargained to take them farther than the Little Blue. The next morning the group of five set out, Sam riding with West on his sorrel named Francesca or Franny, Peety on his Andalusian named Lupe, Cay on his spunky pinto called Skinny while Andy is forced to ride Princesa, a temperamental bay who screams whenever she approaches. Sam learns from West that there are numerous trails to California. He tells her the distance before the Oregon Trail divides is 950 miles. For Sam this means she has to find Mr. Trask before the trail forks or risk losing him and learning what her father was planning for them, forever. When they reach the Little Blue, Sam suggests a fishing contest and that if she and Andy win, the three cowboys will take them to the next trading post, Fort Kearny where they can get their own horses. When the girls win the contest, it means three more weeks of hiding both their true identity and the fact that they are wanted criminals from the cowboys, while trying to learn the location of Harp Falls and catch up to Mr. Trask. What they don't bargain on is becoming friends and finding a new family.


Under A Painted Sky is a compelling novel about friendship, family and identity. It is a tale of survival set in 1849, on the Oregon Trail. Although a historical novel, Under A Painted Sky focuses more on characterization and the relationships that develop between the main characters in the novel, in particular between Samantha and Annamae as well as between Samantha and West Pepper rather than on presenting readers with detailed information about the Oregon Trail and the movement west.

For example, most of the story takes place on the Oregon Trail but Lee's portrayal of travel on the trail in 1849 is somewhat sparse in detail. Andy and Sam set out with minimal provisions, yet never seem to lack for food or water or medicine. They conveniently kill a snake their first night when they also conveniently meet up with three young cowboys who are well provisioned. They also have no trouble catching fish or finding suitable drinking water. As they journey along the Oregon Trail no one seems unduly worried about getting caught on the prairie or in the mountains after the onset of winter - a major concern of wagon trains. There is some passing portrayal of the hardships of the journey, but it isn't until the group falls ill from cholera that the reader is presented with the reality of life on the trail in the mid-1800's.

Nevertheless,  the focus is on the relationships between the characters  and that is what makes this novel so powerful. There are five main characters in the novel: Annamae (Andy), Samantha (Sam) Young, West Pepper and his cousin Cay and their friend Pedro. Andy and Sam form an unlikely bond when circumstances throw them together.  They are thrown together by fate according to Samantha although Annamae, a religious girl, believes God has a hand in everything, even putting the willow tree near where Calloway stops his wagon.
"God planted this tree right here for us."
"Maybe it's better to think of it as fate...I mean, sometimes I wonder why God  would grant a favor if trouble's just waiting around the corner? It feel disingenuous. If it's fate, then it's written in the stars, and we can't do much to avoid it...I don't mean any offense. I just mean, if God is benevolent ---"
"God is benevolent, and it ain't Christian to believe in fate, because He's in charge of the stars, too."

However Samantha believes in the Chinese principle of yuanfen, that some peoples lives are tied together. She tells Andy this when she's worried she may not find her brother Isaac. "There's a Chinese principle callued yuanfen, which means your fate with someone else...Two people with strong yuanfen have a greater chance of meeting in their lifetimes, and can become close as family."

Lee develops her characters in light of the Chinese zodiac which we learn about through Samantha. Before the girls meet the cowboys, we learn first about Samantha. Samantha was born in 1833, the Year of the Snake. A child born in the Year of the Snake is considered lucky but since Sam's mother died in childbirth she is considered unlucky. She has been told to resist her "Snake weaknesses such as crying easily and needing to have the last word." Samantha, upon learning that Annamae was born in 1832, states that she was born in the "Year of the Dragon, the most powerful of the twelve animals on the Chinese calendar...Dragons are sharp-tongued, stubborn and overconfident...They're also creative and independent. And when they put their minds to something, they always succeed..."

When the three cowboys arrive on the scene, Samantha quickly begins to size up their characters and assigns them Chinese zodiac animals too, although she's not completely correct. Based on his age, Samantha believes Cay Pepper was born in the Year of the Rabbit, "meaning he has a tendency to overbreed." and that West is the same. But later she believes Cay was born in the Year of the Tiger. "He's fearless, but a show-off, which leads to recklessness. Yet he could charm the spots off a leopard, so people will follow him regardless. It doesn't hurt that the beauty of Tigers makes them difficult not to watch." She's not far off the mark as Cay is presented as a ladies man, and in fact is running from a girl in Texas who tried to trick him into marriage.

Samantha tells Andy that Peety, whom Andy likes, was born in the Year of the Rat. She says, "He likes to talk, but doesn't share much about himself. He's a perfectionist, a tireless worker, and -- this cinches it -- he loves elegance." She tells Andy that "Rats are most well-suited with Dragons." It's that principle of yuanfen once again.

A main source of tension in the novel is Samantha and Annamae hiding their true identity and that they are girls from the cowboys. For most of the novel it seems they succeed but the reader isn't quite certain. The reader learns near the end of the story, that the cowboys were not really fooled and that they knew all along these were two girls who needed their help. But until that point, this secret is the source of tension in the novel, especially as Samantha begins to form a strong attraction towards West. More and more Samantha finds herself falling for West and struggling to maintain her "boy" image. "I regard his profile, his lips parted slightly, and his perfect eyebrows beginning to knit. It both scares and thrills me to admire his beauty from so close, like I am breaking some law against staring." But the mixed messages she receives from West make her wonder. Even when Samantha saves West's life by force feeding him by mouth she is uncertain as to what he feels and what he knows. When he begins to recover he glares at her. Is he repulsed by her because or how she appears on the outside - Chinese or a boy?  "Maybe he knew all along and never said anything because kissing a Chinese girl would be as indecent as kissing a boy." She is saddened that he seems to be judging her by her "wrapper" that is the fact that she's Chinese. In the end she learns that West is actually struggling to come to terms with how he feels about her.

As Sam and Andy develop the skills needed to survive on the trail - they learn to ride a horse and shoot a gun and bow and arrow, they also begin to earn the respect of the cowboys. The bond between the five strengthen as they help each other through the numerous difficulties they encounter, West's accident, the cholera and their pursuit by the Scottish boys. By the end of the novel, the five characters discover they have formed a friendship and what amounts to a bond as strong as family. Samantha even chooses to delay her attempt to catch up with Trask in favour of helping Andy find Harp Falls and meet up with her brother. Samantha realizes that "Maybe what matters is not so much the path as who walks beside you."

Under A Painted Sky is filled with sky imagery that reflects the realities of life, sometimes beautiful, always changing. The title is a reference to something West tells Sam one evening as they traipse "through a wooded area tinted violet." "This is the best time to hunt, when the animals are out looking for their suppers.'Course, with a painted sky, light's not good." I never heard anyone all the sky painted before, but it's the perfect word. Clouds outlined in gold streak across the firmament, casting uneven shadows over the landscape." This is a reference to West uncertainty about Sam. He's not really sure what he's seeing. At the end of the novel when Annamae and Samantha are floating in the river looking up at the clouds and the different shapes they make Samantha tells her that the clouds are like life - ever changing. "The clouds, they never hold still. Sometimes you think you're seeing one thing, and a second later, the whole picture changes."

Lee brings her novel to a thrilling, action-packed climax and a satisfying conclusion. Not all the ends are tied up as Samantha never learns what her father had planned for them in California. But the crisis that nearly costs Sam her life, forces the truth out into the open: the girls are revealed for who they are, they learn that the cowboys quickly figured out their situation and West and Peety openly admit their affection for Samantha and Annamae. Lee has crafted a wonderfully written piece of historical fiction, filled with adventure, a touch of humour and populated by diverse characters who develop meaningful relationships.

Book Details:

Under A Painted Sky by Stacey Lee
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons     2015
370 pp.

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