Book: “Walk on Earth a Stranger” by Rae Carson
Publishing Info: Greenwillow Books, September 2015
Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!
Book Description: Lee Westfall has a strong, loving family. She has a home she loves and a loyal steed. She has a best friend—who might want to be something more.
She also has a secret.
Lee can sense gold in the world around her. Veins deep in the earth. Small nuggets in a stream. Even gold dust caught underneath a fingernail. She has kept her family safe and able to buy provisions, even through the harshest winters. But what would someone do to control a girl with that kind of power? A person might murder for it.
When everything Lee holds dear is ripped away, she flees west to California—where gold has just been discovered. Perhaps this will be the one place a magical girl can be herself. If she survives the journey.
Review: I always love it when I can find a book that crosses several of my preferred genres. This time it is fantasy and historical fiction. What’s more, the period of history is unique and I don’t think I’ve ever run across a book quite like this! There are a million and one fantasy novels set in Victorian England, a handful during the Regency period, and tons and tons set in some made-up world that pulls loosely from medieval history. But fantasy on the Oregon Trail? Haven’t heard of that! Let’s dive in!
Lee’s life isn’t perfect, but she has a loving family, a loyal friend, and a steady life filled with honest work. But she also has a secret, and one that she and her family have had to hide her entire life: she can sense gold. A gift that should make them rich, instead forces the small family to live in fear of their neighbors. And these fears are realized in the worst way when tragedy strikes. Now, disguised as a boy, Lee flees West, hoping that in a land said to be dripping in gold, her unique skill will go less noticed and she can lose those those who pursue her.
As I said, the book is set up to mix fantasy elements along with a historical setting. But let me just say now, the fantasy elements of this story are so minor that they might as well be non-existent. Lee’s gift serves as a driving force for much of the action, and motivation for her secrecy and the villain’s plots, but other than a few moments here or there, this “magic” plays almost no part in the story. Instead, what we get is essentially a novelized version of the game “The Oregon Trail.” This is not a complaint!
Once Lee is forced out of her home and onto the road, the story is very episodic in the way that it plays out. There are mini events (a robbery, a trip down the river on a raft, illness) all spaced between jumps in time during which she continues to travel. I very much enjoyed this style of writing, but I will warn that it could be read as slow and plodding for those less interested in the day-to-day life of a wagon trip such as this.
And when I compared it to “The Oregon Trail” I wasn’t exaggerating. The same locations are visited, like Independence Rock. There are the required discussions about provisions and wagon weight (should we bring that extra wagon axel??). There are measles attacks, complete with terrible characters leaving behind measles blankets. A stampede, as well as a show of the terrible over-hunting of bison that took place, wastefully leaving behind hundreds of carcasses that couldn’t be carried. I mean, all it needed was someone to die from a snake bite. Again, I enjoyed all of this as I haven’t really read many novels about traveling the Oregon Trail. But it definitely wasn’t providing anything unique in these areas, either, I will admit.
Lee’s own story is one of learning to balance maintaining her secret and also growing to trust those around her. I also always love stories where girls dress up as boys, and through Lee’s own experiences, it is starkly clear the differences in freedoms she is allowed traveling the trail in this guise. What’s more, we’re spared any of the silly “I have a crush on this guy but he doesn’t know I’m a girl!!” angst by the fact that her best friend, Jefferson knew her before she took up trouser-wearing. Jefferson is also half Native American, and between him and a freed African American shop owner Lee also befriends, the story does a good job of acknowledging and addressing the prejudices faced by these groups during this time.
For the most part, the other characters largely served in fairly stock roles. You have the leader of the wagon train, various families with different foibles, the doctor (who has his own secrets), and the family that Lee has signed on with as a helping hand. The wife in this family group was probably the most interesting secondary character presented (other than Jefferson). I really disliked her when she first showed up, but through out the story the author continued to reveal layers of her story that, by the end, left her as probably the most complex character in the party.
Like I said, the magical elements were pretty non-existent, so your enjoyment of this book solidly lies on how much you want to read a novel version of “The Oregon Trail.” But I do feel that Lee herself was a solid narrator, and if you can get by some of the distracting “old timey” elements of the way she’s written to speak/think, she’s a fun character to follow through a story like this. I’m also pretty intrigued by what will happen now that they’ve arrived in California (spoilers??) and the author will have done away with the Oregon trail happenings!
Rating 8: Light on the fantasy, but heavy on the Oregon Trail goodness!
Find “Walk the Earth a Stranger” at your library using WorldCat!