When I think of YA lit, I typically think of epic fantasy novels, thrilling dystopias, or hard-hitting realistic fiction. What I don’t think about are Westerns. The entire genre brings to mind crotchety old men spitting chewing tobacco and gun slinging with criminals in dusty streets (although I won’t lie, I enjoyed John Wayne and Dean Martin in Rio Bravo).
So when I kept seeing YA Westerns coming through my mailbox to read for review, I had to do a double take. Is this happening?? First, it was Vengeance Road, a gripping revenge adventure set in the late 1800’s, and then Walk on Earth a Stranger came through.
I had no real desire to read any of them until a fellow blogger compared it to True Grit. Only then did I finally crack open the paperback cover.
What followed was a powerful, character-driven novel full of surprises, historical context, and a little magic.
When there’s gold to be had, you can’t trust anyone. Not a single soul.
Leah “Lee” Westfall has a big secret; a secret that she must keep hidden or face horrible circumstances. Lee has a sixth sense, for she can sniff out gold the way a dog can sniff out a squirrel. Gold literally calls to her- when she comes near it, her entire body thrums with melodies and reveals its location. Lee keeps her secret to herself, even hiding it from her best friend Jefferson.
Set on the cusp of the 1849 California Gold Rush, her witchy ways have afforded her family a very comfortable lifestyle, but it has also caused conspiracies and jealousies. Leah’s town of Dahlonega, Georgia is convinced that her family is sitting on a goldmine and holding out on the rest of them. So when Lee returns home to find her family murdered in cold blood, she pieces together clues that tell her that the murderer is closer than she could have ever imagined (don’t worry- no spoilers here!). With everything violently taken from her, Lee is faced with two options: stay in Dahlonega and become a pawn in her new guardian’s plans, or reject her old life and strike out West, disguised as a man. Lee believes this is the one place she can fit in where her gift won’t raise suspicion.
Gold always comes at a price and she has to pay one way or the other. She joins a wagon train bound for California, loaded with more secrets than she ever expected to keep hidden from her traveling companions. Lee faces trials and tribulations she never thought she’d encounter: raging rivers, nefarious men escaping jail time, missing children, and treacherous terrain. Walk on Earth a Stranger is a compelling, character driven story about a young woman discovering her true identity, despite being in disguise.
Perhaps what impressed me the most about this novel were the characters. I could identify with Lee’s struggle to fit in and find her identity. I love that Rae Carson gave her the opportunity to use her gift to save lives (literally) and shine in the face of trouble. I also appreciated that this novel wasn’t heavy on the romance. The little attraction that their is in the novel is slow burning and completely logical, in other words, there’s no insta-love here!
There are several secondary characters that were successfully fleshed out. Mrs. Joyner, a young mother trapped in a marriage she doesn’t seem to want, rejects Lee at first. She believes her to be a runaway and therefore up to no good. Mrs. Joyner has a few assumptions about life that aren’t helping her out and Lee’s presence in her life helps her see the light. Rae Carson also features some diverse characters, including Native American, LGBTQ, and African American characters.
Be advised, this is a slower moving plot with lots of traveling cross country and internal reflection. Carson also draws our attention to the social/political history of the time, both with the Gold Rush of 1849 happening and pre-Civil War America.
Walk on Earth a Stranger
Publishing Date: Today! September 22nd, 2015
Genre: Historical fiction, Western, Paranormal
Rating: 4/5 stars
Other upcoming YA Westerns to Watch For (click image for description):