Under A Painted Sky – Should Historical Novels Use Racial Slurs Which Are Accurate For The Time Period?

Book Review : Under A Painted Sky

By Stacey Lee

Spoiler Alert!



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. (Courtesy of goodreads.com)

Adult Point of View

Stacey Lee has writing talent, and uses some great imagery. Here is an example that the title of the novel Under A Painted Sky is derived from:

“I never heard anyone call the sky painted before, but it’s the perfect word. Clouds outlined in gold streak across the firmament, casting uneven shadows over the landscape.”

I wish Lee would bring out more imagery! She does include tidbits about the Chinese zodiac and helps the reader see the world through the eyes of Sammy. Overall, I felt like the story was too simplified into a romance.

Under A Painted Sky is a fast, fun read, but not really any more than that. My favorite part in the book is the relationship/friendship that develops between Sammy and Andy. They support each other and respect each other. They dress as boys to be safer as they cross the country posing as argonauts (gold rush prospectors). Even though there is an undercurrent of racial relations, it isn’t the overall theme. Andy, who is actually named Annamae, is an escaped slave. Sammy, Samantha, is escaping a charge of murder when she struck out at the man who intended to rape her and enslave her as a prostitute. The main theme of the book is the relationships of the traveling companions.

One of the problems I have with historical novels is when they are inaccurate for the time period. Problem 1: Cay finds a lot of promiscuous gals. Since this is prior to the 60’s I found this to be unbelievable. Pregnancy, shame and social morals would not have led to so many women being charmed into sex with a charming cowboy. Problem 2: Homosexuality was another huge taboo in this country. I find it unbelievable that the cowboys would just calmly accept another as a “filly” (Lee’s euphemism for a gay man) when sodomy was a legally punishable offense. Problem 3: The people refer to Annamae as Black. The term “Black” was not used until the 1960’s, and even then, many African American’s considered it to be offensive. The more polite term would have been “Negro” or “Negress” – which is still considered to be very offensive today – and as a slave she really would have been referred to by the N-word. If Lee had used the historically correct terms it would have made her book much more about race inequality, and would have hit the reader in the face. Such explicit language also would have made the friendship Andy has with Sammy even more tender.

Though not historical, another problem I had were the romances. They were kind of lame. I really didn’t see why Sammy liked West, he was surly and withdrawn. Peety was probably the most charming of  the three leading men. Again, there really wasn’t any information as to why Andy was in love with Peety.

Here is another example of the writing.

“The simple strains of the lullaby return me to the world I used to live in, each bow stroke conjuring a memory. Father with his ear cocked as he tuned Lady Tin-Yin. The two of us flapping like herons to help me loosen my arms.” (p. 268)

I plan to read another book by Stacey Lee to see if she can bridge the problem of a stilted story line than is more worthy of her writing skills.

3 out of 5 stars

3 star

If you liked this western you might like Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede (it has magic) or historical books like Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck, or his book A Year Down Yonder have the feeling from a time long ago. I love the book The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly.

About Tales Untangled

I am a mother of four children and have a passion for reading. I love sharing my treasury of books with my kids. I also do experiments in cooking which includes such things as Indian Tandoori Chicken slow-cooked in a tagine. I write stories and illustrate in ink.
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