Spirit and struggle under a painted sky

In the mid 1800s, Samantha and her father live in New York City. Their Chinese ethnicity is occasionally remarked on, but they nevertheless feel at home. When they move to St. Joe, Missouri, a predominantly white town with a few black slaves, they encounter a hostile environment. Though they are never welcome, Samantha’s father buys and operates the Whistle, a dry goods store.
One day, Samantha – two months away from her sixteenth birthday – returns home after teaching violin lessons to several children, and smells smoke. Her worst fears are realized when she sees the Whistle engulfed in flames and learns that her father has died in the inferno.

When Ty Yorkshire, a disreputable, shady character offers to help the distraught, disoriented teen, a series of tragic events unfolds forcing Samantha and Annamae, a slave, to escape for their lives. As hunted fugitives, they realize it isn’t safe for young women to travel alone. They decide to disguise themselves as young men and head out on the Oregon Trail to California.

The girls get to know each other under hazardous circumstances. A tenacious, sisterly bond grows between them as they realize that discrimination is a reality they both have encountered and is a continuing threat to their survival. Annamae sums it up this way: “”I can’t decide which sticks out more, you’s yella face or my black one.”

Samantha and Annamae, having now renamed themselves Sammy and Andy, meet three cowboys – one Mexican and two Caucasians. The girls begin to travel with them and struggle daily to maintain their disguise, fearing the consequences of being discovered for the fugitives that they are. The cowboys take the twosome under their wing. As dangers increase and sickness stalks, Sammy and Andy prove their mettle, and each plays a role in saving the other’s life, as well as the lives of the cowboys. A firm bond grows between them, and unique relationships emerge. Though separated by gender, ethnicity, and social status, the five become a unique family, where trust is exchanged and hope for the future is embraced.

Fast-paced and exciting, with a plot that excels in surprising twists and turns, Under a Painted Sky explores the spiritual struggles of both Samantha and Annamae. Author Stacey Lee capably deals with issues faced by Christians throughout history. Refreshingly, she has done so without being moralistic and preachy. She doesn’t allow her story to become a sermon or try to portray Christianity as a religion that solves all problems and sets its adherents on the road to fame and earthly riches. On the contrary, her characters jump off the page because their faith struggles reflect our own. Prayers, spiritual longings and insights, biblical truths and faith-filled hope permeate this young adult novel. At the same time, hilarious anecdotes, the characters’ idiosyncrasies and the development of several romantic relationships prove a light-hearted balance to the more serious issues with which the novel deals – racism, gender inequality and abuse.

After I read a few chapters of Under a Painted Sky, I sensed that Stacey Lee is a Christian. I turned to her acknowledgements at the back of the book. After reading her thanks to the myriad people who have helped her, I was thrilled to see these words: “Finally, thank you to God, through whom all things are possible.” In my estimation, Under a Painted Sky has done honour to the Lord of all creativity.


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