Wednesday, November 11, 2015

All that glitters is gold...or cholera: Walk on Earth a Stranger, by Rae Carson

Walk on Earth a Stranger
Rae Carson
Harper Collins, 2015
ISBN: 978-0062242914

Lee Westfall is relatively content in her life in a Georgia homestead with her mother and ailing father, though she does wish they could use the windfall from her secret ability to sense gold to improve things without major ramifications.  Major ramifications take that choice away from her when she returns home from school one day to find her parents murdered and their hidden gold findings missing.  With nothing to hold her back, her best friend Jefferson, a half Cherokee boy urges her to run away west with him in pursuit of the gold that is there for the taking in California.  Lee is reluctant, and Jeff sets off with the promise that he’ll wait as long as he can in Independence, MO for her if she decides to join. When her uncle turns up at the funeral covered in gold dust that only Lee can sense and tells her he has plans for her it is abundantly clear to Lee that he is behind her parents deaths.  Lee realizes her best option is to follow Jeff west, disguises herself as a boy, and begins the formidable, perilous and adventure filled journey west - to Jeff, gold, and away from her uncle and past.  Along the way she, along with the millions who also made the historic journey, will encounter no less than bandits, buffalo, brutality, racial tensions, starvation, exposure, medical emergencies, all while trying to stay alive and hide her identity and talent.  This is a nonstop historical fiction with a touch of whimsy and a promise of future romance, and it is wholly engrossingly fabulous!  With realistic characters in realistic yet hard to fathom from a contemporary standpoint, it is a strong recommendation for all libraries serving teen patrons or with adults who love YA.  Basically, unless you have no money, buy this book.     

Perhaps the most articulate way to say this is that some books can be hugely absorbing, and I found that to be the case with this one.  But a better way to say it is this: a book has not hit my squee button like this in quite some time - like May, when I read the Royal We (or actually probably also Uprooted).  
Don’t misunderstand me when I use the squee button scientific unit of measurement ot describe my feelings about this title though; this is fundamentally a different book (ie. not fan fiction, no sexytimes, no Brits, limited magic).  This book hits my squee button because it is such fun to read, has great pacing, three dimensional characters, realistic yet extreme plots, a great balance between action and the mundane, the vague promise of future romance, and yes, yes, yes: IT’S ON THE OREGON TRAIL.  You guys...
you know how I feel about the Oregon Trail.  (See also: Oregon Trail)


While I was disappointed that nobody died of dysentery, I was uplifted by the fact that this is a realistic girlpower/girl in drag historical novel, despite the initial magical ploy.  Truly - the magical divination power? Though it pops up every time and again to remind us it is there, it’s basically an afterthought (that I suspect will matter more in subsequent titles).   I'm mildly worried it'll become too important in the works to come, but hope the balance between regular historical fiction and magic is kept! This book is such an accessible way to explore what life was like for those who caught the North American gold rush fever.  

Remember two sentences ago or something when I noted that nobody dies of dysentery?  Well, note that I didn’t say people didn’t die.  This is clearly a well researched title; Carson makes recommendations of sources to further explore the topic in her authors note. Things are appropriately brutal, yet never glorified.  This is a welcome title in that there is no whiteboy savior on this trail.  There are people of many colors, and is a decidedly firm rebuke to a lot of the horrible things whiteboys did on the trail: small pox blankets, horrifyingly wasteful hunting of buffalo, etc.  It doesn’t pretend there weren’t black people on the trail - freed and slaves - even going so far as to explore what some of the complications would have been.  It even uses the protagonists cross dressing as a way to dig deep in looking at what being a woman on the trail was like, as Lee straddles both worlds.  I’ll stop rambling now so that you can go out and get after this awesome new book!  

And dudes - if you can get past the sparklefade lady cover, are comfortable with coming of age physical things for girls (or say, childbirth), you will love this one too if you just give it a chance!

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