Hey guys, guess what? I read a YA book and actually loved every page of it!
Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson had me riveted to the page, and I’m not just pulling a book reviewer phrase out of a hat here. I read the entire book in a day, stopping only for meals and chores, and when I did stop, I got antsy. I needed to know what happened next in the fictional world of Lee Westfall. I can read quickly when I’m reading a physical book, but I haven’t been this transfixed by a one in ages.
Summary (as told by yours truly): It’s 1849, and our protagonist is a tomboyish girl from the state of Georgia named Leah “Lee” Westfall. She’s an only child and her father’s ill, so she does most of the manly work on their farm, including hunting. So among her peers, she’s already considered a bit weird. What’s even weirder is that she has a secret ability to sense gold. This ability has brought wealth to her family, though they can’t really cash in on it without raising suspicion. Plus, there isn’t much of it anymore in her locale, but there’s talk of finding even more of it in California. Her best friend Jefferson wants to go west in search of it, and wants Lee to join him. As tempting as this sounds, Lee hesitates. Then one day, Lee comes home to find her mother and father murdered, and their hidden supply of gold stolen; at the funeral, she identifies the culprit by the teeny traces of gold dust, imperceptible to the naked eye, that remain on his/her person. He/she knows about Lee’s secret ability – as the culprit closes in on her, Lee prepares her escape. Disguised as a boy, she heads West on her own, hoping to reunite with Jeff along the way. The road is rough, and the company of travelers she joins faces a series of trials, from disease to theft to mysteries only a gold seer can solve.
I can’t get over how tastefully Ms. Carson dealt with so many different subjects and issues. There’s a lot of underlying social commentary which gets conveyed super-subtly in the way the characters behave and interact. In short, this book excels at being showy, not telly.
Among other things, we’re given a look at what it’s like to be of African or Native American descent during this era, the prejudices expressed against them, and how those affected react – and the message is conveyed through these expressions and reactions. It’s subtle. We don’t have to sit through a lengthy, preachy internal monologue about how wrong racism is from the narrator. This subtlety, I think, is the most powerful way to convey that message.
Additionally, Lee and Jefferson talk of getting married before beginning their westward journey, mostly out of necessity and safety. Alternatively, they could pose as brother and sister. It’s really quite charming that through the entire book and the entire journey, the characters remain best friends first and foremost. Yes, there were fleeting instances of jealousy as Jefferson catches the eye of another westward traveler’s daughter, but the cliche love triangle I so detest in YA books never happened. Thank you, Rae Carson. Your book passes both the Alison Bechdel test and the Allison Rose test.
Additionally, something happens in this YA book that I’m actually 100% cool with. While on the run, Lee gets her first period. I was actually wondering why this wasn’t an issue for her already, considering how realistic the book is in every aspect save that no one actually has magical, gold-sensing powers in real life. Why hadn’t she taken this into consideration when she decided to cross-dress?
Was I offended by this? Not at all! When you consider the age group of the book’s intended audience, this isn’t really such a “sensitive matter.” Rae Carson isn’t writing this to give kids a crash course in the joys of puberty and procreation – menstruation was an important point in both the plot and Lee’s character development (what type of development did you think I was talking about?), and again, it’s handled with such delicacy. Her descriptions of what happens are very technical, with no more detail than necessary to establish what’s going on. So again, thank you, Rae Carson.
On the other hand, Rae Carson is not shy about bloodshed. She is very stringent in following the writerly advice of William Faulkner: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” In fact, I’d say she has mastered the art of killing all the fictional darlings. Her methods are unexpected and unpredictable, but they aren’t random. There’s always a credible reason, setting, and everything – and she has a vast arsenal of causes of death. I’ll advise prospective readers to not form strong attachments to any of the characters – alternatively, love and hate them all as you please, and let the grief and frustration consume you for the full, emotional roller coaster experience when she kills your favorites off.
Also, no one in this story is perfect. All the characters have their various flaws, and we find Lee siding with different characters, depending on where they stand on various issues. The cast is a bit like that of Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (because I couldn’t write a blog post without referencing the Bronte siblings at least once) – you love them, you hate them, you love them again, and you’re surprised by who turns out to be all right in the end. I think this is tells an important message to those who choose to live in echo chambers of “us versus them.” We may not agree on everything, but uniting over what we have in common is what will get us through the toughest challenges, not limited to heading West in one piece.
As mainstream YA fiction books go, this is one of the “cleanest” ones I’ve read so far. Is it flawless? No. If it were a movie, I’d give this a mild PG-13 for disturbing content, mild language, and veeeery mild suggestive content. I’d probably recommend this book to readers aged 15 and up. Not surprisingly, Walk on Earth a Stranger is the first of a trilogy called Gold Seer. While the story ends on a very solid note, and works very nicely as a standalone novel, I hope the sequel will be just as wholesome and gripping.