Walk On Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson
Published 2015 by Greenwillow Books
436 pages, historical fiction/magical realism.
I put off reading this book for a long time, without really knowing why. I loved Carson's fantasy trilogy. I enjoyed the last YA western I read, Vengeance Road. But somehow, I just wasn't convinced this book had more to offer than a gorgeous cover. And even the cover struck me a bit wrong, given that the girl's neckline and hairdo both seemed unlikely for pioneer days.
I got ahold of an audio version and started listening during my commute. I was pulled in immediately. There were parallels to other stories--I've read about a gold-finding girl sought by evil men before (though I can't remember where right now), and of course disguising yourself as a boy is a pretty common act in historical fiction. But Leah's voice and story are hers alone. I was only able to listen to the book during two commutes before grabbing my physical copy and gobbling the rest down.
I hadn't realized it was a covered-wagon story. I guess the actual California part comes in the sequels. I also hadn't realized how many of these I read in my childhood, but all the familiar notes felt like old friends. Gathering supplies and forming a company in Independence, the oxen vs. mules debate, over-packers abandoning goods along the trail, cholera and shallow graves, river crossings, lowering wagons down steep hills, encounters with Native Americans, carving your name on Independence Rock (and judging your progress by how close to July 4th you arrived there), buffalo stampedes and wasteful killing of buffalos, Dutch ovens and flour barrels--I LOVED that shit what I was a kid, and it was so fun to travel the trail again, this time with a slightly older character and a markedly more "woke" author.
My great-great grandparents immigrated from Connecticut to Oregon in a covered wagon. I've always been proud of that, if "proud" is the right word for something that actually has nothing to do with me. It's been embarrassingly recently that I've become uncomfortable with that. It was a land grab, made possible through genocide. Carson doesn't shy away from that, and by creating Jefferson, Leah's biracial best friend, she allows Leah to be more sensitive about the prejudice against "Injuns" without making her anachronistically PC. The flip side of this is the reality that hold true today--people immigrate for all sorts of reasons, and there's nothing inherently evil about seeking a better life for yourself. The "Argonauts" are all part of a genocidal land grab, but they are also all motivated by entirely relatable reasons. The hypocrisy of a nation with our history squawking about immigrants is certainly not the moral of this story--Carson is a far better writer than to deal in moralizing--but I love how this magical realism/historical fiction book is relevant and thought provoking.