I think this is a case of “It’s not you, it’s me.”
When I was a kid/young teen, I went through a multi-year obsession with survival stories. I pretty much only read nonfiction about people (usually historical people) who survived crazy wilderness situations. The California and Yukon gold rushes were probably my second-biggest wilderness passion. Arctic exploration was definitely my deadly-story first love, but I read a lot of gold rush nonfiction. If a book promised that someone was going to die horrifically in the wild, young me was all over it.
So, what does this have to do with Walk on Earth a Stranger? Well, this novel is set in gold-rush-era America and focuses on a teen girl named Leah. She has a secret: She can sense gold. She uses her power to make her family rich. This attracts the attention of some unsavory people. After Leah is forced to flee from her home, she decides to head west with her kind-of-sort-of boyfriend. Gold has recently been discovered in California, and she knows that she’ll be able to find enough of it to make a new life for herself. Her biggest challenge will be surviving the trip from Georgia to California.
“‘Only way to reach the green grass of Oregon or the sweet gold of California is through hell itself.’” –Walk on Earth a Stranger.
I didn’t like this book as much as I expected I would. I know that I burned myself out on gold rush stories when I was younger, but I thought that Leah’s gold-sensing magic would add a new twist to a familiar tale. Unfortunately, the magic is barely present in this book. Hundreds of pages go by without it even being mentioned. The book is marketed as fantasy, but it feels a lot more like historical fiction, which would usually be fine with me because I love historical books. My issue is that this book doesn’t bring anything new to the historical fiction genre. I found Leah’s journey to California to be painfully slow and highly predictable. I felt like I spent the entire book waiting for something big to happen, and nothing ever did.
I also wasn’t feeling Leah’s love interest. Jefferson seems to spend most of his time sulking. I understand why he’s unhappy—he’s often near-death and has to deal with racist idiots on top of it—but I started to wonder what Leah sees in him. He doesn’t have a lot going on in the personality department.
There are some elements of the book that I love. Leah is a badass woman. I really like her. She’s loyal and quick-thinking, and nothing is going to stop her from getting to California. She’s confident in her body but not unrealistically beautiful, which is rare for a YA heroine.
“I have a strange life; I know it well. We have a big homestead and not enough working hands, so I’m the girl who hunts and farms and pans for gold because her daddy never had sons. I’m forever weary, my hands roughed and cracked, my skirts worn too thin too soon. The town girls poke fun at me, calling me ‘Plain Lee’ on account of my strong hands and my strong jaw.” – Walk on Earth a Stranger
The book discusses a lot of interesting gender issues. For part of the story, Leah is forced to dress as a boy, “Lee,” because she needs money. The author does an impressive job of showing the differences in the ways that Lee and Leah are treated. Even though they are the same person, Lee gets all of the advantages that society has to offer. Leah is treated like property.
“‘Men can be relentless,’ she agrees, ‘when they think a woman belongs to them.’” - Walk on Earth a Stranger
This book does have some positive aspects, and I was entertained by parts of it, but I probably won’t continue with the series. It just didn’t offer much that I haven’t seen before.