A-Z on the Oregon Trail

Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

Release Date: April 17, 2015
Publisher: Penguin | Putnam BFYR
Pages: 384 pages
Source & Format: Bought; Hardcover
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Summary (from Goodreads)
Missouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician—not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life. With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush. Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn out to be unexpected allies. With the law closing in on them and new setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not many places to hide on the open trail. 

This beautifully written debut is an exciting adventure and heart-wrenching survival tale. But above all else, it’s a story about perseverance and trust that will restore your faith in the power of friendship.

Thoughts on Under a Painted Sky
I've started taking notes on a book as soon as I finish reading it (a habit I should have developed long ago), and my initial reaction to Under a Painted Sky was - HOLY. COW. I was hoping I'd enjoy this book, but I had no idea that it was going to become a forever favorite for me. This was such an incredible read - and so deserving of all the praise it's received so far! Honestly, I'm just excited I get to join the chorus telling you to READ IT.

I could write a normal review where I explained in a handful of paragraphs all the reasons you need to pick up Under a Painted Sky... but that's not what I'm going to do. Instead, I've got 26 things (one for every letter of the alphabet!) you'll find inside this incredible book. If this doesn't convince you, I don't know what will!

Adventure. This was such an exciting read! Samantha (Sammy) and Annamae (Andy) are on the run, and there's no shortage on danger facing them on the trail. A reminder of why I love books from this time period!

Bravery. It takes a lot of courage for a runaway slave and a girl who committed a crime to disguise themselves as boys and flee to California. Whether it's river crossings or outlaws, they tackle each challenge head on!

Cowboys. Samantha and Annamae team up with three cowboys (Cay, Petey and West) while on the trail. At first, I was suspicious. But these cowboys quickly stole my heart and proved to be valuable companions.

Diversity. Samantha is Chinese and French, Annamae is African American, and Petey is Mexican. It was so refreshing to read a book that depicted the diversity of the Oregon Trail in such a meaningful way.

Escape. The characters aren't just running from someone in pursuit of them. In some cases, they're trying to escape their painful memories and their deepest regrets. The longing for freedom is so strong in this book!

Friendship. The friendship between Samantha and Annamae is one of favorite parts of this book. I love how they support and protect one another - but also challenge each other! They become, in many ways, sisters.

Grief. Samantha is grieving a big loss, and it's painful and moving to watch her navigate those emotions. I really loved how the book portrayed family loyalty and love, as well as the damage a bad one can do.

History. I'm a huge fan of historical fiction, and this is the perfect example of why! History came alive in these pages, and now I want to read anything and everything I can get my hands on from this time period.

Injustice. From the way Samantha's father is treated to the things that happened to Annamae's siblings, this book definitely depicts injustice. It's a painful reminder of some of the darkest parts of this nation's past.

Journey. There's a bit of a quest going on which aligns with the coming-of-age aspects of the story. Samantha and Annamae are both searching for different things, and they'll be tested when those are in opposition.

Kindness. There are a number of moments in this book that highlight human kindness. There are many moments that show the worst side of people, so it was really nice to be reminded that there's good in people, too.

Love. There's many different kinds of love in Under a Painted Sky - between friends, between siblings, between a child and their parent, between a boy and a girl... I loved the relationships in all their forms.

Music. Samantha wants to be a professional musician, and I found her passion inspiring. I loved the way it tied to her heritage and the legacy she wanted to leave! It's not a huge aspect, but it's a memorable one.

Narrative. Plain and simple, I love the story being told in this book. It captured my attention and my emotions, which is a winning combination. There's something special about this read!

Outlaws. In addition to cowboys (and the long arm of the law), there are several outlaws in this book. They took the tension to another level, and I was scared of how two scenes in particular were going to end!

Prayer. I love Annamae's faith - and the way she reacted to Samantha's Chinese beliefs. I don't often see faith in YA, so it was nice to have it mentioned. It's not a huge aspect, but it's a part of Annamae's character!

Quotable. I was definitely a fan of the writing in Under a Painted Sky. I was lacking page flags while  reading, so I ended up taking photos of A LOT of pages so I could write the quotes down once I was done!

Rats, rabbits, rattlesnakes... Chinese astrology is important to Samantha, and she thinks about each character's sign and what it says about them. As for rattlesnakes, you'll have to read to find out what they mean to the girls.

Sickness. If you've ever played the Oregon Trail computer game, you know to expect sickness while you're journey west. These heroines can't escape the threat of disease, but can they survive it?

Trust. Samantha and Annamae have to trust one another to keep some pretty huge secrets, and they debate whether they can trust the cowboys with the truth, too. And what will happen if they do?

Undercover. Samantha and Annamae disguise themselves as boys, and it was hilarious to watch them try to keep their identities a secret. I kept waiting for the moment that everything would be revealed!

Vendettas. Samantha and Annamae make a few enemies along the way, and the pace really picks up when you think someone might be closing in on them. I found the tension and suspense quite exciting!

Western. I'm now dying to read more Westerns! For some reason, I didn't think I loved them... but I was totally wrong. I want more covered wagons, dangerous journeys and attractive cowboys, please!

Xenophobia. This is a bit of a stretch, but I'm making it work. Xenophobia is the intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries. You'll see this depicted in the way Samantha and her father are treated.

Yoke. I was having a hard time thinking of a word for Y, so I decided to go with yoke. Samantha and Annamae become yoked together, and Annamae has been hurt by the yoke of slavery.

Zeal. The cowboys display this infectious energy that made them some of my favorite characters! They wormed their way into my heart, and they often provoked laughter and smiles with their antics.

Well, there you have it. The best part? These are 26 things you'll find in Under a Painted Sky, but there's so much more to discover! This book exemplifies why I love reading historical fiction and illustrates my favorite aspects of the genre. I can't wait for more from Lee, and I know I'll be re-reading this book in the meantime!

So Quotable
"Maybe what matters is not so much the path as who walks beside you."


  1. I love how your broke down the post based on the A-Z words. It's perfect!

  2. Love the A-Z concept! So clever, must have taken awhile! Westerns have never been my favorite genre but your reasons make me want to give Under a Painted Sky a try! :)

  3. I only just recently admitted to myself that I love Westerns so obviously I need to read this one! It sounds fabulous! Have you read A Sudden Country by Karen Fisher? It's another Oregon trail story I so admire. Other Westerns I adored: Alyson Hagy's Boleto, which is contemporary and maybe a bit more literary (with a great protagonist named Will!)-- I reviewed it for Horse Nation: And of course there's Molly Gloss' novels The Jump-Off Creek and The Hearts of Horses, both of which I loved and reviewed for Horse Nation: And the sequel to Hearts of Horses-- Falling From Horses-- just came out this Fall! It's about 1950s era Hollywood and making Western movies and is on my TBR.

  4. oh my gosh! Now I have a lot more reasons to bump this up my TBR pile!

  5. Heck, yes! I read Under a Painted Sky immediately after you told me too, and I certainly share your opinion. It was so dang good! I loved being so fully immersed in Sam & Annamae's story, and I really think Lee has created something special for her readers with this book. Definitely want more!


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