Have you ever played that game, Oregon Trail? If you haven’t, you can check out an online version here. Well, Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, a coming-of-age story and the first book in the Gold Seer Trilogy, reminded me a bit of that game, and I absolutely loved it!
The story takes place in 1849 during the California Gold Rush, and follows 15-year-old Leah “Lee” Westfall, a girl with a dangerous secret. Lee can sense gold. Her body literally hums and buzzes whenever she gets close to it, allowing her to know exactly when to dig for gold. It’s an ability her parents have tried to keep secret.
The story begins in Georgia, where Lee lives with her mother and sick father, and spends most of her time tending to the family farm, hunting, and trying to keep her secret hidden from everyone, even her best friend, Jefferson. But when tragedy strikes and a hitherto unknown relative becomes Lee’s guardian and threatens to send her to finishing school, Lee sets out on her own, her eyes set on making it all the way to California. Disguising herself as a boy so as to throw off her pursuers, Lee has to cope with the loss of the life she once had, and learn to trust other people.
One of the things I really enjoyed about this book was the number of issues the story brought up. Death and grieving, friendship and trust, gender roles, spousal roles, child abuse, displaced peoples, racism, slavery, religion, greed and hope and sacrifice- it’s all here. Parents, this would be a great book to read with your students and have conversations about it as you go along.
I also enjoyed the book for its historical accuracy. Sure, there are a ton of things that go wrong as Lee makes the harrowing journey- everything from rattlesnake bites to cholera and measles to buffalo stampedes and heat stroke. And while all of that might not have happened to a single person, it sure did happen to a lot of people as they made their way to what they hoped would be a brighter future. And you know what? A lot of people didn’t make it. They all had dreams of what their future might look like, but that picture didn’t necessarily come into focus. When some had trials and faced hard times, they gave up. But others, people like Lee Westfall, Major Craven, and Becky Joyner, are dealt a rough hand, but keep going, relying on the kindness of others to help them get through the hard times. And I suppose that’s really what I liked the best about Walk on Earth a Stranger. I have such a strong image of the western pioneer, taking their destiny in their own hands, picking themselves up by their own bootstraps and soldiering on, being self-sufficient and successful, despite the odds. This book challenges that notion, and it’s a lesson, I think, that we need to be reminded of today, too.
The end of the book, while satisfying, leaves plenty of room for the sequel- Like a River Glorious– which I have already started and am enjoying (though the romantic element is already a bit stronger). If you like historical fiction, westerns, a bit of fantasy, or just a strong, female protagonist, I’d encourage you to pick up Walk on Earth a Stranger, and give it a shot.
A little bit about Rae Carson- she is a New York Times Bestselling Author, and has written several books, including The Fire and Thorns Trilogy. Carson is a self-proclaimed nerd, who insists cheerleading changed her life, writes full-time, and lives with her husband and their two cats in Arizona. Walk on Earth a Stranger has been nominated for the 2017-18 Young Hoosier Book Award.