A different kind of western here, with two girls pretending to be boys, heading out to the great beyond, following the trail of hopeful Argonauts. Each is after her own escape. “Chinaman’s daughter” Sammy is fleeing from the law after she has fought off and accidentally killed a would-be-rapist. Andy, her black friend and companion and sister in outlawhood, is fleeing enslavement.
Stacey Lee handles all kinds of subtleties with great grace in this novel. Stereotypes get turned on their heads. Andy tells a story and everyone listens with rapt attention. Sammy can hardly wait to ask her, “Was that a story from your ancestors?” Sure, yes, the ready assumption. And then Andy shakes her head and laughs it off, saying, “Nah. I made it up.”
In all, what blew me away is how this book mixes darkness with humor, despair with hope. It takes a gritty part of history and gives us a fresh look at it. Humor, clever characterization, lively writing, and the clearly drawn female perspectives lift this book above the usual western staples of plot and adventure. Under a Painted Sky switches up perspective and tells an untold narrative of the west in the same way as do books like Vaunda Nelson’s Bad News For Outlaws or Susan Krawitz’s Viva, Rose! In doing so it fills out and enriches the history, and gives young readers more complete look at the past than previous generations of books have done. And it works because the narrative stays clear and true to the main character’s vision of the world.