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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 967

Author: Stacey Lee

First published: 2015

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical Fiction

Time of plot: 1850s

Locales: Missouri; the American West

Principal characters

Samantha, a teenage Chinese American girl

Annamae, an enslaved African American teen

West, a cowboy and artist

Cay , a cowboy...

(The entire section contains 967 words.)

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Author: Stacey Lee

First published: 2015

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical Fiction

Time of plot: 1850s

Locales: Missouri; the American West

Principal characters

Samantha, a teenage Chinese American girl

Annamae, an enslaved African American teen

West, a cowboy and artist

Cay, a cowboy and womanizer

Peety, a cowboy and horseman

Isaac, Annamae's brother

The Story

Stacey Lee's novel Under a Painted Sky begins in St. Joe, Missouri, in 1849. Samantha and her father, who runs a general store, are the only Chinese people in the town. They have come from New York, an infinitely more cultured place, and Samantha begs her father to return there; however, he wants to go to California. Father and daughter argue, and Samantha leaves to teach violin lessons. When she returns to the store, hours later, it has burned to the ground and her father is dead. The landlord, Ty Yorkshire, offers Samantha refuge at one of his other properties, a fancy hotel. There, an enslaved teenager named Annamae helps Samantha draw a bath. Yorkshire barges in after Annamae has gone. He offers Samantha a place in his brothel and tries to rape her, but she beats him with a heavy scrubbing brush. He falls, cracking his head on the washtub, and dies. Now, Samantha is not merely alone and penniless, she is also a murderer. She joins forces with Annamae, who, as it turns out, was planning to make her escape that night. The girls dress as boys and leave town, stowing away on a wagon headed west. Courtesy of G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers

Samantha, now Sammy, seeks her father's friend, Tucker Trask. Annamae, now Andy, seeks her brother Isaac, who was sold away from her several years ago. They agree to pretend to be looking for gold, with the painful knowledge that they may have to split up and follow their own paths at any time. Their first day on the trail, they meet a trio of friendly cowboys, West, Cay, and Peety, a Mexican ranchero. They fall in with the good-natured crew, who are ambling their way toward an unknown destiny out west. The boys teach Sammy and Andy how to rope, shoot, and ride a horse. Sammy, the daughter of a translator, teaches the boys languages and entertains them with her virtuosic violin playing. Andy cooks and weaves meaningful fables. Despite the disguise, Sammy begins to fall for West, a quiet artist. The two save one another's life on multiple occasions; it is unclear if West knows her secret.

Sammy and Andy do their best to keep themselves hidden, but far down the trail they are still wanted and being actively pursued by two Irish brothers who discovered their secret. Peety, Cay, and Andy fall ill with cholera but eventually recover. After her illness, Andy strikes out on her own, but Sammy follows her. The girls discover that Isaac, a member of the infamous Broken Hand Gang, is just up ahead on the trail. The reunion is cut short by the appearance of the Irish brothers. Isaac sacrifices himself to kill one of the brothers; Sammy tussles with the other brother and the two go over a waterfall. The brother dies, but Sammy survives; she is nursed back to health by her friends and West, who had discovered her secret a long time ago. The same goes for Peety, who pairs up with Andy.

Critical Evaluation

Under a Painted Sky was Lee's debut novel in 2015. Her second book, Outrun the Moon (2016), is also historical fiction. It takes place in Chinatown in early twentieth-century San Francisco. The Secret of a Heart Note (2016), on the other hand, tells the contemporary story of a teenage matchmaker with an extremely sensitive sense of smell.

Under a Painted Sky, with its intriguing exploration of relationships, identity, and diversity, was largely well received by critics. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly—the publication gave the book a starred review and named it as an editor's pick—wrote that the novel's protagonist, Samantha, offers "a fresh perspective on the era and setting." A reviewer for Kirkus, who also gave the book a starred review, called it "well-crafted" and "suspenseful." Lee combines elements of Chinese culture with a survival story set in the American West. Samantha often thinks about her strengths and weaknesses based on her birth year, the Year of the Snake, and ably guesses the birth years of her companions based on their personalities. The strong-willed Annamae, for example, was born in the Year of the Dragon. At the same time, Samantha is forced to rethink previously held superstitions regarding luck and fate. Interpreting signs, like the number of dots in Annamae's tattoo, is replaced by a will to survive and save her friends. On the same note, Lee offers a singular vision of the pioneer trail westward as seen through the eyes of a young African American woman and a young Chinese American woman. The two friends, particularly Annamae, experience the racism of other settlers, making their mission all the more dangerous. Samantha may be dressed as a boy, but she is still the only Chinese person for miles. Stakes are particularly high for Annamae, who has experienced untold cruelties and would face worse were she to be caught. Their combined, honest perspective of the West punctures the romanticism that plagues other books set in the same time-period.

Further Reading

  • Review of Under a Painted Sky, by Stacey Lee. Kirkus Reviews, 15 Dec. 2014, p. 169. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=100280117&site=lrc-plus. Accessed 14 Mar. 2018.
  • Review of Under a Painted Sky, by Stacey Lee. Publishers Weekly, 26 Jan. 2015, p. 173. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=100694758&site=lrc-plus. Accessed 14 Mar. 2018.
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