I loved The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy by Rae Carson. There was no way I could pass up a chance to read an ARC of her new book Walk on Earth a Stranger. This is an incredibly different sort of fantasy from her first trilogy. I wasn't really sure if I would like it as much going in as I've never been a huge fan of Gold Rush/Oregon Trail novels, but I LOVED this. Loved loved loved it. Yesterday it was included on the longlist of books for National Book Award for Young People's Literature. It most assuredly deserves to be there.
Lee Westfall has a special ability that must remain a secret. She can sense the whereabouts of gold. If this were discovered, she knows people would want to use and exploit her for their own gain. Lee is content finding what gold she can on her father's claim in Georgia and living a quiet life with her parents. Everything changes when her parents are shot dead by someone they trusted, someone they told her secret to. Knowing she needs to escape, Lee disguises herself as a boy and heads for Independence Missouri where her best friend Jefferson has already gone to join a trip to the California gold mines. As Lee makes her way across the country, she faces harsh conditions and fears for her safety, but she also discovers that the family you choose can be just as special as the family your born with.
Lee is a gold seer which makes this a fantasy yes, but more importantly it is an amazing work of historical fiction. Rae Carson did her research well and pulls absolutely no punches about the difficulties of the journey west. The book is gruesome is some places. There is sickness, there is death, there are unpleasant situations for Lee and her traveling companions around every corner. The harsh realities of the time period are shown. It is in no way glorified or looked at through rose colored glasses. I appreciated how Carson also showed many people's problematic attitudes towards those who were different from them. She had people demonstrate racist attitudes toward Native Americans and slaves, but they were demonstrated as problematic by other characters on the very same page. That is how you do historical authenticity with balance. It is done simply too. By having a diverse cast of characters and showing their reactions and discomfort in these situations, Carson was able to achieve exactly the right tone with this. This is, without a doubt, the best westward expansion novel I've ever read. Part of my dislike for them as a whole is that they never satisfy what I want from one. This one completely satisfied me in every way.
EDITED TO ADD: Following a close reading of the book, Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children's Literature posted a review of the book where she enumerates several ways in which the portrayal of Native Americans is highly problematic. While I was reading, I interpreted some of the instances she discusses very differently BUT my assumptions that I brought to those interpretations were all things implied. Debbie is absolutely right on about how the text presents, and brings more insight to how Native readers will read the text. I'm saddened by the things she points out because it has lowered my opinion of the book as a whole substantially. I think it's important to read her thoughts before you decide to read or purchase this book. End Addition
The plot of the story is mostly the journey itself. The book gets off to a thrilling start with the murders of Lee's parents, and there are several places in her journey west where major events take place. For the most part this is a story of a journey though. There is a lot of traveling. Maps are looked at. Plans are discussed. I loved the authentic feel this lent to the book, but see how it might be frustrating for a plot driven reader. I think the pacing is perfect for the story it is telling, which is that of a girl traveling across the country and the community that she finds amongst her fellow travelers.
My favorite part of the book is the characters and the relationships that are developed on the journey across the country. Lee is young and impulsive, but she is clever and works hard to think her plans through and stay several steps ahead of those who may be pursuing her. She meets a diverse and interesting mix of people on her journey and slowly comes to realize the world has all sorts of people in it. She has always kept herself distant from people outside of her parents and her best friend, Jeff, but she slowly learns to trust and open up to others. That is the heart of this book. Lee finds community, friendship, and family in places she least expects it, and it is a beautiful story. I adored all the characters who became an essential part of Lee's core group and the slow way each one's story was revealed through their journey. (This may be slightly spoilery, but this especially applies to Becky Joyner who is my favorite secondary character. I LOVE her.) The way this community and self-made family comes together through tragedy and challenge is just so wonderful.
I definitely will be pre-ordering the second book as soon as I can.
I read an ARC made available by the publisher, Greenwillow, via Edelweiss. Walk on Earth a Stranger goes on sale September 22nd.