I hate historical fiction, but I’ll read historical books that try their damnedest to be interesting.
If a book adds a serial killer, say, or some girl power, I’ll come sniffing around.
Under a Painted Sky caught my interest.
Two women of color become unlikely allies and go on the lam together?
Disguised as boys?
And they meet and fall in love with cowboys!?
I had this EXACT fantasy in the fourth grade!
The book starts out in medias res, which I like. I prefer to get right to the action.
And WHAT A START:
They say death aims only once and never misses, but I doubt Ty Yorkshire thought it would strike with a scrubbing brush. [….] Does killing a man who tried to rape me count as murder?
WOW. SOLID beginning! I know just enough to want to know more. Until…
My mind wheels back to twelve hours ago, before the world turned on its head….
YOU’RE ALREADY LOSING ME, STACEY.
You mean to tell me you’ve just warded off an attempted rape by killing your attacker and your FIRST thought is to reminisce about the morning? I AM NOT CONVINCED. Any interest I had in the murder is dwindling.
Sammy, our protagonist, remembers being angry with her father that morning.
I strapped on the Lady Tin-Yin’s violin case and glared at my father, who was holding a conch shell to his ear. I thought it was pretty when I bought it from the curiosity shop back in New York. But ever since he began listening to it every morning and every evening, just to hear the ocean, I’ve wanted to smash it.
All right, we’re back on track. Sammy is mad at her dad and I want to know why. Is this a depression symptom? Does he lay around listening to the shell all day? I’d be mad, too.
Noisily, I stuffed a tin of peppermints into my case for the children’s lessons, then proceeded to the door. Unlike Father, I kept my promises. If a student played his scales correctly, I rewarded him with a peppermint. Never would I snatch the sweet out of his mouth and replace it with, say, cod-liver oil. Never.
Wait… Is this something you would actually do, Sammy? Is this a joke? Is this something your father would do? I don’t know enough about either of you to guess. Then again, we’re only two pages in.
Finally, Sammy gives some hint as to why she’s angry with her father:
“You said we’d move back to New York, not two thousand miles the other way.” New York had culture. With luck, I might even make a living as a musician there.
Wait a minute… Did you…not realize…where you were moving? I’M NOT CLEAR AS TO THE SITUATION. I’m imagining this girl traveling 2000 miles in the opposite direction thinking she’s headed to New York. And that makes me feel some REAL UNCHARITABLE THINGS.
Okay, we’re only on page 2. I’m sure I’ll get more context later.
Oh, it sounds like Sammy’s father moved to California for the gold rush. That gives me a LITTLE more information. But Sammy’s not having it – she leaves the house.
I want to jump in and mention that there’s an 8-hour time skip between this passage and the next. I mention this because I MISSED THE TIME SKIP, which greatly influenced my reading of the next passage.
Anyway, 8 hours pass and Sammy is walking home when she smells smoke. She runs home and finds her father’s store burned to the ground. Stacey Lee simultaneously describes the store as an ashy ruin and a wall of heat. I’m not sure what’s going on.
I would like to mention that, at this point, we’re only on page 4.
On page 5, a background character drops this bomb: Sammy’s father is dead.
This is where the time skip might have helped me.
I read this and thought, “SHE WAS JUST TALKING TO HIM TWO SECONDS AGO,” when, in reality, it had been 8 hours.
Then I realized that didn’t help the situation.
The father appears ONCE for TWO PAGES before he DIES. Oh, excuse me, BURNS ALIVE. And this in a novel that opened with a murder. TOO MUCH IS HAPPENING.
Sammy feels stabs of guilt:
I shuddered and then my chest began to rack so hard I could scarcely draw a breath. Smoke engulfed me, thick and unyielding, but the awful truth rooted me to the spot: after I’d given my last lesson of the day, I’d dawdled along the banks of the dirty Missouri, throwing stones instead of coming home directly.
Did you? Because I remember a fight between you and your father followed by the announcement of his death and NOTHING ELSE.
Oh, Father, I’m sorry I argued with you. I’m sorry I left with my nose in the air.
A little guilt is understandable, even without much context for the rest of their relationship.
Were you remembering that when the smoke robbed you of your last breath?
That’s a bit dramatic…
You always said, Have patience in one moment of anger, and you will avoid one hundred days of sorrow.
Oh, he ALWAYS said, that did he? I wouldn’t know; I only knew him for TWO PAGES.
My temper has cost me a lifetime of sorrow. And now, I will never be able to ask your forgiveness, or see your kind face again.
This. Is. Too. Much. We are only 6 pages into this novel. There’s not enough context for me to understand this relationship and not enough room for me to process what this death means to the protagonist. This whole premise feels beyond rushed.
The next chapter opens with several townspeople gossiping about Sammy:
“She’s been standing there over an hour,” a man muttered to another as they passed by.
COOL IT, BOOK. WE’RE ON PAGE 7.
The townspeople say some other horrid, racist things that STILL DON’T FEEL EARNED. Frontloading angst is a STRATEGY, but it’s not working for this book.
Sammy makes this reproach:
Fly, you crows. My father was not a spectacle. He was the greatest man I ever knew. He was my everything.
I WISH I HAD KNOWN HIM FOR MORE THAN TWO PAGES.
Things get far worse from here.
Sammy describes her astrological sign; she mentioned it once earlier, but now she goes into more detail:
A child born in the Year of the Snake was lucky. But every so often, a Snake was born unlucky.
“This is always true of Snake children…except when it’s not.”
Mother died in childbirth, a clear indication that my life would be unlucky.
OF COURSE SHE DID.
To counteract my misfortune, a blind fortune-teller told Father never to cut my hair, or bad luck would return. In addition, she said I should resist my Snake weaknesses, such as crying easily and needing to have the last word.
…did he do it? Have you been growing out your hair ever since? ARE THOSE YOUR ACTUAL WEAKNESSES? HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THIS ASTROLOGICAL DIAGNOSIS?
Enough of that; time to introduce Sammy’s would-be-rapist:
“‘Tis a shame about your daddy,” said a familiar voice. Our landlord, Ty Yorkshire, shook his head.
I immediately pictured Norm McDonald as Colonel Sanders. Solid association.
When was the last time a book I read featured a Southern villain? Why do I have a bad feeling about this all of a sudden.
Oh no…I remembered. Now I can’t get Kady Cross out of my head!
“My best building, too,” he said in his rapid speech that caused his jowls to shake.
Oh. So not a fancy Southern drawl, as I assumed.
“Sometimes you roll snake eyes.”
I gasped. He knew my Chinese lunar sign?
This is what did me in. I can’t deal with stupid heroines. Still, I thought I could do one more page.
Scanning page 9, I found Sammy by the river about to throw herself in.
SUICIDE. ON PAGE 9.
This is way too much drama for me to care about. So long, female friendship. Thanks for nothing, historical fiction. See you never.