Leah Westfall is happy with her family on their claim in Georgia. Her father may be sick, her family may be poor, and she may be saddled with most of the farm’s chores, but her parents love her, and she has a secret that keeps them all from starving through the winter. She can sense gold. Her world comes crashing apart, however, when her parents are murdered and her uncle shows up, intending to use her gold-finding magic to get rich, and Lee takes the first opportunity to run away, westward, in the California gold rush.
Let me just start by saying this book was phenomenal. I worried that it wouldn’t be my kind of book, as I’m not really a fan of historical fiction, even when there is trace amounts of fantasy involved. Carson won me over completely, though. There were so many wonderful things about this book that I’m having trouble organizing my thoughts. Here, then, are some briefs:
Religion is a huge thematic element all throughout Walk on Earth a Stranger – indeed, even the title is from a hymn. There are different kinds of Christians at war with each other, deciding what’s the right path. There are preachers who pray instead of taking action, and there’s the idea of “converting” the savages of the west. There are funerals used as a way to lecture people on their heathen ways (I’ve experienced those!!). There are kind religious people and mean religious people. There are Mormons who, as in every Western, inevitably show up from time to time. There is conflict and control and indifference rooted in religion. This time in history has a lot of religious conflict and concern in it, and Carson uses that as a background on which to lay many of the points she wants to get across – without it ever feeling heavy-handed or preachy, or even anti-religious, despite there being a lot of negative aspects to religion throughout the book.
This was also a time of huge turmoil based on race, from the slave division north and south to the way the Native Americans were being treated. Honestly, I could spend multiple reviews on this issue alone, but instead, I’m just going to leave it here to say that Carson also did a great job handling these issues without getting preachy. Lee, as a narrator, has certain opinions gained from her experiences and family, but she’s no modern-woman saint that provides a comfortable-to-us point of view. At times she’s ignorant and judgmental, realistically so, even if she’s not by far the worst of the characters we meet.
There wasn’t much in this category, but I did like the use of “confirmed bachelors” and the hints toward future settlements in San Francisco, and I also liked that the confirmed bachelors of the group were some of the kindest, most realistic characters in the book.
Most, perhaps all, of the books I’ve read involving a female narrator disguised as a male come from the point of view of the female wishing she could do what males could do, and therefore going into disguise to do those things. That isn’t the case here. Lee’s reasons are far more complex. She hates lying, hates being in disguise, and misses her life as a woman. More interesting, she finds her male persona far weaker and more useless than her real female self. Because of her unique circumstances, in having to do her father’s work on the farm (hunting, farming, mucking, splitting wood, etc) due to his illness, she is every bit as competent to labor on her trip west as the men, and it’s interesting to see this double life of hers, and what happens to her along the way because of it.
Carson obviously did a ton of research into this time period. There’s an afterword where she talks about the different things she changed from real history, and the way she wove things in. For me, though, it wasn’t just about the real touches. It was about getting the characters right. The language. The cultures. Often I’ll read certain kinds of historical books that don’t feel right. Either the characters speak/act too modern, or their language sounds like a copy of the language used in old classics, or that the culture is shallowly glanced over. This felt far more authentic. Having grown up myself in the south and southeast, with family that came from Native American ancestry that later went west, and extended family with deep pioneer Mormon history, there are certain cadences, vocabulary, and cultural markers that either feel real or falsified in books like this. Simply put, these felt real.
A couple more notes: There was some fantasy elements here, but honestly, they were more like background noise. This story was really the story of a girl who has lost her family and is struggling to make a place for herself in the world. Along the way, she learns that the definition of family is far broader than she’s known. There’s a bit of romance, though subtle and light, and a bit of that gold-sniffing magic, but mostly, it’s a questing story, both internally and externally. Additionally, the book doesn’t pull punches. There are some pretty gruesome moments, including medical procedures, and in no way does this journey west have the feel of a happy, triumphant march. There are deaths and injuries and losses and failures. Some very unbelievable things happen, miraculous kinds of things, but in the context of all the senseless and accidental pains, things I’d never expect to cause death and grave injury, they no longer seem like unbelievable miracles. It feels almost like chance. Chance or fate or God or whatever decides who gets to live or die. It gave me the sense of how helpless life must have felt sometimes, and how much more of a gamble it was then, when you might recover from cholera but die from a twisted ankle.
As you can see, I could go on and on and on about Walk on Earth a Stranger. I’ve barely scratched the surface of it. I highly recommend it to everyone, even those who don’t normally read fantasy or historical fiction or YA. It’s fabulous, and transcends all the categories it could be put into.