Set in the mid-1800s , this road-trip towards a gold-rush (well, not much of that happening..) and through the Oregon trail, follows a motley bunch of five – two girls and three boys. The two girls are disguised as boys – one running from the law to escape a murder conviction and the other is a runaway slave.
I am not fond of road-trip books – I think it is partly because I have a difficulty time getting invested in all the descriptions of the changing landscapes and trails. It is often said the best way to know someone is to travel with them – but somehow this hasn’t translated well with a lot of the books I have picked based on road-trips – where there is a whole lot of traveling and you feel like nothing much has changed in the character-arcs.
Was reading this book any different? Well, for starters this trip served as a clever backdrop to throw light on a period that saw the first wave of Chinese immigration alongside when slavery was still rampant. Clever and breezy, because Stacey Lee doesn’t get too verbose and keeps the slightly thread-bare plot moving forward.
It was interesting to have Samantha and Annamae team up and strangely, even when both are “marked” and “different” and both have faced racism – Samantha’s mother dies during childbirth because the doctors didn’t want to treat a woman who “looked like her” – her privilege of being “free” (at least by birth , if not by law) , ends up protecting Annamae during some circumstances.
Samantha and Annamae disguise themselves as boys – Sammy and Andy – and persuade three boys they meet on their journey to give them a ride.
The remainder of the book is about what each party offer – free Chinese lessons, singing, cooking, cowboy and rifle lessons, having each other’s back when faced with illness, dwindling food supplies and other dangerous outlaws.
Through all this, they form an easy-going, almost familial bond. Sammy is conflicted about their deception because she is falling for one of the boys. She feels guilty when she realizes this farce is somehow triggering his deep-seated wounds of a horrid childhood (which includes him being abused by his dad for having “effeminate hobbies”). From being able to rationalize it by saying he is probably racist and she doesn’t owe him the truth, she is not sure about her decisions anymore.
The conflict in the girls’ minds over reaching for their goals – such as Annamae reuniting with her brother or Samantha seeking out a family friend who could provide the support she needs to get through the remaining years – intensifies as their friendship grows – with each other and also with the three boys.
This is a fun historical fiction, with genuine laugh-out-loud moments amidst what is essentially a terrible string of events and a tenuous journey. My only grouse is that we don’t know enough about the boys’ lives. There is an attempt to fill in as much of their backstories as possible, but it doesn’t feel enough. Also, as I mentioned earlier, there isn’t really much of a plot and whatever little that exists is pretty predictable. So getting through the last few chapters is a bit of a drag.
If you love the good ol’ Westerns, I suspect you would enjoy their journey a bit more than I did.
*I won a signed copy of this book in a giveaway hosted by Shenwei@readingasiam/wordpress . Thank you!*