There needs to be more fantasy westerns, just because. And I wouldn’t mind if they followed the lead of Walk on Earth a Stranger, a book that, while not exactly offering the most concise storytelling it might have, nevertheless mashes up the two genres with something close to perfection. Our heroine is Georgia teenager Leah Westfall. It’s 1849, the California Gold Rush has thousands packing up their wagons for the perilous journey west, and Leah has a little secret: she possesses the magical ability to divine the presence of gold. But her devoted parents haven’t done a very good job of keeping her secret. When they are murdered by Leah’s greedy and embittered uncle Hiram, Leah cuts off her hair, disguises herself as a boy, and slips away in the night to join her dear friend Jefferson in Independence, Missouri, where they have agreed to meet and make their way to California together.
Rae Carson creates such a lush and vivid sense of time and place that you truly feel transported. The world of pre-Civil War America feels alive and lived in, its sights, sounds and textures engaging your imagination to the fullest. Her writing is so smooth and effortless that I didn’t even notice it was all in present-tense voice, a style affectation I usually find annoying.
The story takes its time unfolding, however. While I never found it less than interesting, we are fully halfway through before Leah makes it to Independence and reunites with Jefferson. But all this time, Carson has been calmly setting the pieces on her board, introducing supporting characters whom we’ll come to know intimately, and placing Leah in just enough peril as she travels incognito that it feels realistic and adds the right amount of suspense. And once Leah and Jefferson join the wagon train and the trek begins, the book finally kicks into gear and becomes a sweeping, widescreen Wagons West epic that never once flinches from the hardship and peril that those who made these journeys actually faced. Carson offers one memorable set-piece after another. A buffalo stampede is especially dramatic. But she also examines some of the less savory realities of American history through a modern lens without, admirably, any sense of narrative anachronism.
Jefferson, for example, is half-Cherokee, half-Irish, and the appalling racism of some of the men in the wagon train causes, shall we say, an undercurrent of tension. Some of them simply won’t shut up about the supposed murderous depravity of the Indians, but every Native American actually met on the road is peaceful and just going about their day, and has just as much if not more reason to be frightened of random encounters with white settlers. Leah’s disguise as a boy will, she knows, eventually be found out. But the time she spends as “Lee” offers her the epiphany that “Lee” enjoys freedoms Leah never could. At a time when a woman’s life was more or less entirely dependent on men, to be able to travel alone and make her own decisions is quietly revolutionary. But Leah learns that she’s part of a world where some people get to do as they please, and everyone else has to pretend to be someone they’re not to enjoy that taken-for-granted privilege.
You’re probably wondering, at this point, what about Leah’s gold-finding talents? True, it is the only fantasy element in a book that is mostly historical fiction. Carson employs it quite sparingly (I'm quite sure it will play a more prominent role in the sequels). A good choice, I thought, because it gives us time to believe in Leah as not just another YA fantasy Supergirl, but a real, flesh-and-blood young woman, coming of age on an emotionally and physically arduous journey. The obvious cliché trap Carson could have fallen into — in addition to the Dreaded Love Triangle, which, by the way, she also commendably dodges — would have been to make Leah’s magic the thing that empowers her and allows her to conquer all adversity. But it’s the opposite. It’s awesome, sure, but also an awesome burden. It has made her a prize to be possessed by her domineering and murderous uncle, a man she knows will never face the consequences for his crimes due to his social status and superficial charm. Her magic will drive people’s greed to such intensity that they’ll stop seeing Leah as a person at all, simply a tool to be be used. No, what empowers Leah is the experience of growing up, the transformation into adulthood, facing the harshest lessons life has to offer and dealing with them, where the only alternative is not to make it through alive.
I was invested in Rae Carson’s world, and her people. Not all of them will survive the long trek to the supposed Promised Land. Some of these people you don’t like so much, so it’s no big deal. But others you begin to care for deeply, and it’s painful when they go.
Where does the book falter? Apart from its first half being too slow in building, the story overall, despite its well-executed drama, has few surprises. There’s no doubt Leah will eventually encounter uncle Hiram again, and the book’s ending, coming after the long and painstakingly rendered adventure that has led up to it, is so abrupt as to be the very definition of anticlimactic. But in its very best moments, Walk on Earth a Stranger is a compassionate and exciting tale that leaves you hopeful the rest of the trilogy will be pure gold.