Cross-Dressing Heroines in New YA Westerns

This month, as I was reading Rae Carson’s Walk on Earth a Stranger and Erin Bowman’s Vengeance Road (forthcoming, September), I kept thinking back to Stacey Lee’s debut, Under a Painted Sky , which I recommended a few months ago. These novels are comparable in many ways. They are nontraditional, diverse, feminist westerns that celebrate female heroism, adventure, and resilience. After tragedy strikes all three heroines, leaving them orphans, they overcome sexist confines by masquerading as boys and heading west.

22501055-1Under a Painted Sky‘s opening scene is powerful. The narrator, fifteen-year-old Sammy, has just killed her landlord with a scrubbing brush. Sammy wonders: “Does killing a man who tried to rape me count as murder? For me, it probably does.” She knows the law will not sympathize with a “Chinaman’s daughter.”

Flashback to that morning, twelve hours earlier. She is angry that she isn’t back in New York City (which has “culture”) and still lives in Missouri. Her father promises they will return to New York “one day”–after he and his friend, Mr. Task, pursue their “great plans” of making a fortune in California. (It’s 1849, the height of the California Gold Rush).

Now it’s late afternoon. Her father’s dry goods store has burned to the ground and he’s dead. Their landlord offers Sammy room and board “in exchange for services.” He threatens her with negligence charges if she doesn’t “pay her debts” as his “exotic number” and “Lily of the East.” When he tries to “test the goods,” she strikes him dead.

Disguised as boys, Sammy and her landlord’s slave, Annamae (now Andy), flee the crime scene and head to California in search of Mr. Task. Their adventures on the Oregon Trail include befriending handsome young cowboys as well as dodging frightening strangers and racists. (To find out what Stacey Lee had to say about creating Under a Painted Sky, read this.)

17564519Rae Carson’s Walk on Earth a Stranger, the first book in the Gold Seer trilogy, also offers a fresh perspective on the Gold Rush narrative. Like Sammy, fifteen-year-old Leah is a brave, resourceful heroine who, masquerading as a boy, runs away to California after a terrible tragedy compromises her freedom.

It’s 1849, and Leah and her parents live on a big homestead in Georgia, but the Gold Rush has ended and less gold is panned each year. There are no sons in the family, so Leah hunts, farms, and drives to school “like a boy.” Her classmates call her “Plain Lee” because of her “manly” features. But Leah brings more to the table than “a man’s work.” She has a magical gift: she divines gold. Her parents have hidden six pounds of gold she’s “witched up” under the floorboards in their house, since they fear that taking it to the bank will attract attention.

But one day, Leah comes home from school to find her parents shot dead and the gold missing. When her uncle shows up at the funeral with gold flakes on his clothes and claims that she and the homestead are now his property, Leah (as Lee) escapes. She wants to meet up with her best friend (and love interest) Jefferson (part-Cherokee), who left a few days earlier for California; but how will her secrets change their relationship once she finds him?

23719270Erin Bowman’s Vengeance Road  also features a tough, gender-bending heroine; this time, in Gold Rush Arizona (1877). Like Sammy and Leah, eighteen-year-old Kate (a Mexican-American) disguises herself as a boy (Nate) and heads further west, after a tragedy leaves her parentless.

The novel opens with Kate finding her father hanging dead from a tree and their home ablaze. The Rose Riders, a notorious band of murderers and thieves, have killed her father–all because of a mysterious journal that hints at a gold mine’s secret location. Determined to avenge his death, she disguises herself as a boy and takes off in search of the Rose Riders and the gold mine. Along the way she teams up with Jesse and Will, brothers in pursuit of gold, and an Apache girl. Although they share high-stakes adventure, they have a contentious friendship and never really trust one another. Vengeance Road is full of plot twists and turns, and brutality, greed, and revenge remain prevalent themes.

Western migration is realistically harsh and unforgiving in all three novels, and yet their heroines find hope and resilience through new adventure, friendship, and romance. But the closer they get to their destinations, the more difficult it is for them to keep their girlhood secret; and gender, sexuality, and romance become increasingly uncertain and complex. They can’t masquerade as boys forever, and what will happen when their secrets are discovered?

Alyssa Raymond is a YA blogger for Coven Book Club and its sister site Spellbinding Books. She thanks Edelweiss, the publishers, and the Boulder Book Store for providing her with digital review copies of these books for review purposes, and her opinions are her own. Please follow Spellbinding Books onTwitter and Tumblr.

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3 thoughts on “Cross-Dressing Heroines in New YA Westerns

  1. Pingback: YA Recommendations Roundup: Summer/Fall 2015 | Coven Book Club

  2. Pingback: Happy Birthday, Coven Book Club! | Coven Book Club

  3. Pingback: Outrun the Moon, by Stacey Lee | Coven Book Club

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