I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson
Series: The Gold Seer Trilogy #1
Published by Greenwillow Books on September 22 2015
Genres: Young adult, Fantasy, historical
The nitty-gritty: A nail-biting, realistic portrayal of one of American history’s most influential events, the California Gold Rush, told by a girl with a talent for finding gold.
I had seen so many glowing reviews of Walk on Earth a Stranger, that I knew I just had to fit this in before the end of the year. And boy was I glad I did! This is my first Rae Carson book, a wonderful glimpse into life in 1849 when news of gold in California broke, and the scramble of folks all across the country to head West to claim some of it for their own. It’s also a fantasy, as the main character Leah can sense the presence of gold, and you can imagine how dangerous that secret could be if people knew about it. However, if you’re looking for a story that is primarily fantasy, you should look elsewhere. This book is mostly a historical, and a really good one at that. Carson’s research and writing made me feel as if I were right there on the covered wagons, in the middle of a drought, trying to summon enough strength to make it another ten miles. The perils of traveling cross-country felt vividly real, and even as I cringed at some of the more graphic parts of the story, I could not tear my eyes away.
We are introduced to Leah Westfall, a young girl living on a large homestead in Georgia, a hard worker who helps with both household chores and helping her father hunt. But one day, she returns home to find both her parents dead, murdered in cold blood, and before too long, Leah’s creepy Uncle Hiram appears on her doorstep to inform her that he’s taken custody of her. Leah knows the real reason behind his sudden interest in her: somehow he’s discovered her secret—Leah can sense gold, and whenever she’s near gold in any form, she feels a “buzz” that leads her right to it. Uncle Hiram simply wants to exploit her, and Leah knows she won’t be safe until she’s as far away from Hiram as she can get.
And so she becomes Lee, chops off her hair and dons her father’s old clothing, takes her trusty mare Peony and runs away. Her plan is to make it all the way to California, where it will be easy to not only make her fortune, but hide her talent among all the other gold diggers. But the long journey is fraught with dangers, and Lee knows she’ll need lots of help if she’s going to make it out West. She joins up with various groups of people along the way and makes some lasting friendships as well. But the worry of running into Uncle Hiram, who is surely searching for her, is never far from her mind.
Walk on Earth a Stranger is one of those rare books that is impossible to put down, but not because of an action-packed story. I found the first half to be quite slow, but I realized later than Carson was simply laying the groundwork for what’s to come. Before you know it, Lee and her new friends are battling all sorts of horrible things, including disease (cholera and the measles), dwindling supplies of food and water, stampeding buffalo, and a rough terrain across country that includes impassable rivers and mountain ranges, all which must be crossed by teams of oxen-pulled covered wagons. Carson doesn’t shy away from what life must have been like in those days, and she even includes the dangerous life and death situation of pregnant women on the trail.
And while the history parts were fascinating, it was Carson’s characters who made this book so special. Lee (as she’s known for most of the story) is one tough cookie. She dresses up as a boy to hide from her uncle, and she must learn to behave as a boy too, in order to fit in. She never lets her “gold sense” get the better of her, and even though she longs to try her luck in California, she only wants to help others rather than herself. There are plenty of colorful characters to flesh out the story, including a boy from her hometown who knows who she really is, a stern and unhappy woman named Mrs. Joyner, a reverend who is always ready with a prayer, and a group of shifty men who Lee learns not to trust. Little by little, this group of strangers becomes a family of sorts, and I loved the way they learn to help one another in order to survive.
One character other than Lee really stood out for me, and by the end of the book I seriously wanted to read an entire story about her. Mrs. Joyner is the matriarch of the family that Lee works for in order to pay her way West, and Mrs. Joyner does not like her in the beginning. She’s a woman who is determined to embrace civility and decorum, no matter how harsh life on the trail becomes. She and her husband are carrying all the furniture they own across the plains, in the hopes of setting up house in California. Every night at dinner, Mrs. Joyner pulls out her wooden dining table, covers it with a tablecloth, and serves dinner on her china plates. It’s an affectation that seems silly at first, but the more you get to know her, the more poignant this ritual becomes. I cannot wait to see what lies ahead for her character in book two!
There are plenty of sad moments to balance out the joyful ones, and all I can say is Carson isn’t afraid to sacrifice her characters whenever the story requires it. (And don’t get too attached to the animals, either. They don’t all make it.) Lots of reviewers are comparing this story to a video game called The Oregon Trail, which I had honestly never heard of until I started reading reviews. Instead, it reminded me of a PG-13 version of Little House on the Prairie, with lots of heart and plenty of worrisome dangers to keep you on your toes. The ending sets things up perfectly for the story to continue, and you can bet I’ll be waiting in line for book two (whose title has not yet been revealed).
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.