Recommended for: everyone who played the Oregon Trail PC game in the 90s & fans of historical fiction with a touch of magic.
This book took me completely by surprise. When I heard that there was a small, niche emergence of westerns in YA, I was unduly excited. I grew up watching westerns with my dad, playing Oregon Trail on the old computer, and reading the Little House on the Prairie books. And of course I read all of the Dear America books set in the Old West. I was enthralled by stories of the American West, one of my earliest literary infatuations. Of course my childhood fascination probably owed quite a lot to the prominence of horses in a lot of the stories (my parents live on a horse farm and I was horse-obsessed as a kid). Reading Walk on Earth a Stranger brought back all of those great stories I grew up on and reignited my old fascination with stories of America's western expansion.
The story follows Leah Westfall, or Lee as most people know her, a girl from Georgia with a secret and valuable power. She can sense gold, a power so useful that some people would do anything to control her. When tragedy strikes she sets out for California where gold has recently been discovered, but her journey is a perilous one. She disguises herself as a boy and joins a wagon train heading west, her best friend by her side. This is not a tightly-plotted thriller/adventure story. It's a story of survival. The journey across the vast American continent is a test of endurance as much as strength. I was emboldened by the fact that Rae Carson did not compromised historical accuracy* to satisfy readers spoiled by plots hinged on exorbitant tension. This book is about pioneers - humans braving a dangerous unknown, undertaking a formidable expedition, a harrowing migration. It's a test of human strength and mettle. And that makes a fascinating story on its own. Lee's power as a 'gold seer', which gives such a unique element of surrealism/fantasy to the story, is a secondary thread throughout the story (although I have a feeling it will play a larger role in the following books).
I loved that Rae Carson took the time to devote a whole book to challenging her characters' strength through a life-changing journey. With so many of today's book series focused on action-packed plots, character development can sometimes be rushed. It feels so real for characters to take time to grow - in real life, people grow and change over months and years and through relationships, journeys. And for pioneers of the American West, the journey across the country had a profound and lasting effect on their psyche. Lee and the other pioneers in Walk on Earth a Stranger face dire challenges on their journey and I found myself feeling so strongly for them that I couldn't put this book down, even without any nerve-wracking action scenes.
If you like immersive historical fiction and stories of the Old West, I heartily recommend Walk on Earth a Stranger.
* My only qualm with the historical accuracy was a strange scene at the end when Lee is given the chance to decide whether or not she'd like to continue living as a boy after her disguise has been uncovered...Unfortunately, as much as we'd like to believe it, there were no transgender-allies in 1849. I'm working on a post about gender-bending in YA, so hopefully I'll be returning to this topic quite soon. I do think there needs to be more representation of gender issues in YA and I'm looking forward to discussing the topic in more depth.