In Stacey Lee’s young adult novel, “Under a Painted Sky,” two fugitives from the law, Samantha (Sammy) and Annamae (Andy), travel west on a journey to find freedom from their pasts. Wanted as a murderer and a runaway slave, respectively, 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 as 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 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” and straddle the horse instead of sitting side-saddled, or when the girls struggle to care for their feminine hygiene while undercover.
At one of their stops, a midwife sees through their disguise and, realizing that they are girls, 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 cowboys, which allow the group to form a familial relationship. The women no longer see them as a threat, but as part of their chosen family.
Lee weaves this theme of chosen family with scenes of adventure and survival throughout her story. 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, the landlord’s slave, into the West along the Oregon Trail. 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 concur and 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.
Bailey Young is a Penn State senior and an intern for the Center for American Literary Studies.
Upcoming Centre County Reads events
▪ 6-7 p.m. March 13, Holt Memorial Library, 17 N. Front St., Philipsburg
▪ 12:15-1:15 p.m. March 15, Centre Region Active Adult Center, Nittany Mall, No. 990, 2901 E. College Ave., State College
▪ 6:30-7:30 p.m. March 15, Centre County Library, 200 N. Allegheny St., Bellefonte
▪ 6:30-7:30 p.m. March 21, Schlow Centre Region Library, 211 S. Allen St., State College
▪ 2-3 p.m. March 22, Schlow Centre Region Library, 211 S. Allen St., State College
▪ 1 -2 p.m. March 24, Centre County Library, 200 N. Allegheny St., Bellefonte
▪ 6-7 p.m. March 30, Centre Hall Area Branch Library, 109 W. Beryl St., Centre Hall
“Rethinking the American West” Community Read Roundtable
4-5:30 p.m. March 14, Mann Assembly Room, Paterno Library, University Park
Evening with Stacey Lee
7 p.m. April 6, Nittany Lion Inn, Ballroom C, 200 W. Park Ave., State College. Book signing to follow.
“Wanted” writing contest
This year’s writing contest asks you to submit your best writing — 7,500 words or less — on what you think it means to be “wanted,” in any of the following categories: short fiction, nonfiction, poetry, writer younger than 18.
Entires are due by March 13. Send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
▪ Visit www.centrecountyreads.org for more information and a full list of events.