The first book in a new trilogy from acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Rae Carson. A young woman with the magical ability to sense the presence of gold must flee her home, taking her on a sweeping and dangerous journey across Gold Rush–era America.
Lee Westfall has a secret. She can sense the presence of gold in the world around her. Veins deep beneath the earth, pebbles in the river, nuggets dug up from the forest floor. The buzz of gold means warmth and life and home—until everything is ripped away by a man who wants to control her. Left with nothing, Lee disguises herself as a boy and takes to the trail across the country. Gold was discovered in California, and where else could such a magical girl find herself, find safety? Rae Carson, author of the acclaimed Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy, dazzles with this new fantasy that subverts both our own history and familiar fantasy tropes.
Walk on Earth a Stranger, the first book in this new trilogy, introduces—as only Rae Carson can—a strong heroine, a perilous road, a fantastical twist, and a slow-burning romance. Includes a map and author’s note on historical research.
In elementary school, I was kind of obsessed with people travelling west across America in the 1800s. I read so many Dear America books on the subject, it’s kind of ridiculous. So right off the bat, I was immediately into this book (and Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, which I never reviewed but also loved) for nostalgic purposes. This book takes place during the San Francisco Gold Rush; the main character (who can sense gold in the ground) disguises herself as a boy and joins a wagon train going west after her uncle murders her parents.
But I liked this book for more reasons than just nostalgia. Walk on Earth a Stranger introduced me to a brave, resilient heroine and a varied cast of characters I can’t help but care about. There’s beautiful writing, very on-point discussion of racism and sexism, a story that alternates between heartwrenching and heartwarming, and a premise I can’t wait to see further exploration of in the next two books.
This book was described to me as historical fantasy, but while there are magical elements, they generally take a back seat, to the point where I sometimes forgot they were supposed to be there. I assume Lee’s powers will be more involved in later books. Either way, I thought this one worked the way it was–spectacular character driven historical fiction with just a little hint of something else.
This isn’t exactly a criticism, but keep in mind that Rae Carson takes her time with the story. The plot line and villain that are introduced in the first couple of chapters don’t play much of a role in this book until the end. I was still enthralled in the story–the journey west and Lee’s character development were more than enough for me. But I know it might bother some people. The first one-third of the book, before Lee joined the wagon train, moved somewhat slowly as well.
Lee is such an amazing protagonist. She’s resilient and brave and caring and willing to do what needs to be done. Her strength through everything she has to deal with here is amazing, and I loved watching her find a place where she belongs. In addition, I love a lot of the other characters and Lee’s relationships with them. Lee and Jefferson have this amazing friendship where they love and understand each other, even when they don’t tell each other everything. When they eventually develop feelings for each other, it’s believable. At one point, Lee worries that Jefferson has a thing with this girl Therese and avoids Therese for a while, but eventually they become very good friends and we see that Therese is adorable and stronger than she looks. And there are some characters, like Mrs. Joyner, who I disliked at first but eventually grew to love. I really appreciated the understanding and friendship that eventually developed between her and Lee.
I also loved the survival aspect of the book. The characters deal with limited supplies and rough terrain and childbirth and disease. Rae Carson did a good job keeping the tension up in certain scenes and reminding the readers that not all the characters would live through this. There were a lot of scenes where I was genuinely afraid that a character I cared about wasn’t going to make it (and sometimes they didn’t).
The book is well-researched, and you can tell. Rae Carson includes intricate details about the lives of the characters, and does not gloss over the uglier sides of 1800s America, and the awful attitudes many held towards women and people of color. The book shows both overt and subtle instances of racism from characters. There are major characters who are not white, including Lee’s best friend, Jefferson, who is Native American. Lee’s disguise as a boy emphasizes the different way boys and girls were treated, and we see so many instances of men trying to control women. In addition, Walk on Earth a Stranger highlights the strength of the women on the journey, something that often gets erased from stories like this one.
This book just made me feel things, okay? Even more than I expected. Read if you like diverse historical fiction, subtle relationships, survival, and amazing ladies.