While this is a review, I’ve included a lot of thoughts on how Rae Carson subverts genre expectations in this novel and provides interesting variations on recognizable tropes. Therefore, I have included more plot details than I have in past reviews. Thus, I feel I should add a bit of a spoiler warning (though I promise I didn’t reveal any major plot points).
Sixteen-year-old Lee Westfall has the ability to sense gold in the world around her. This ability has enabled her family to get by, even when everyone else believes Georgia’s gold rush has ended. But this power is also dangerous. When her life is torn apart by a man who wants her power for himself, Lee disguises herself as a boy and begins the journey west to hopefully find a new life in California. But the road is far from safe. Lee faces robbers, harsh climates, and the constant fear that her identity – and her ability – will be discovered. Even with her best friend Jefferson along for the ride, the journey may prove as dangerous as staying behind.
This book was not what I expected. It wasn’t as fantastical as I thought it would be. In fact, this novel is more historical fiction than fantasy in my opinion. Yet, the blend of realistic elements with the magical element of Lee having a gold sense is both interesting and refreshing. While Lee’s gold sense is a pivotal part of the story, she is not entirely defined by it nor is she “the chosen one.” Her power actually causes her as much pain as pleasure, since she can’t even use it without drawing unwanted attention and danger to herself. Lee having to keep her ability a secret is also essential to the trust theme that runs throughout Walk on Earth a Stranger.
Lee is a particularly well devised character. She falls within the category of “strong female protagonists” and Rae Carson has her partake in activities that many girl characters have, through interest or necessity, done in past literature. Yet, Carson manages to avoid being cliché or uninteresting.
First, Lee is a hunter. Many literary lady hunters are Diana-esque: they have a profound understanding of animal behaviour and often wield a bow and arrow as their weapon of choice. While I don’t have anything against bad-ass lady bow-slingers, I was refreshed by Lee’s comfort with a gun (especially given that in a society where guns exist, it makes sense to also use guns rather than their low-tech predecessors).
Second, while Lee takes on a male disguise – a detail I was bordering on being annoyed with when it was first introduced simply due to the fact that it has been done so many times – her behaviour doesn’t change that much. Though she repeatedly expresses her dislike for having to lie about her identity, I would argue that she is simply taking her the private identity of independent, hard-working, gold hunter she always had and putting it more fully on display in the public sphere. Speaking of Lee’s personality, it is important to note that while Lee may be a bit tomboyish compared to her female peers, she is still interested in the skirts and pretty things in shop windows. Acceptance of stereotypically girly things is something I’ve found that the “strong female protagonist” trope in genre fiction sometimes forgets.
Furthermore, Lee’s cross dressing is made more interesting by the presence of other female characters. So often disguised girls are in almost exclusively male environments (think Arya Stark disguised as Arry or Mulan as Ping in the Disney movie). In this book, there is a whole cast of other women that illustrate the gender roles of gold-rush era America that Lee subverts through her behaviour and cross-dressing. Also, these other women prove to be pretty bad-ass themselves when given the opportunity, so it’s not like Lee is the be all and end all of heroic women in the novel and that is something I appreciate.
Another thing I appreciate about this novel is that while it is a fantasy novel with a “strong female protagonist”, it isn’t about trying to save everything. Sure, Lee makes friends and does her best to protect them, but she isn’t trying to save the world, she’s trying to live in it. I think that’s a more relatable plot myself.
The only trope of the genre that Carson did retain is that there is a bit of a love interest plot line. But, it’s not unrealistic and Lee is never over-focused on it, so I’m generally okay with it – it adds some depth to the cross-dressing plot line and plays into the trust theme well.
Because I was so intrigued by the ways Carson subverted my expectations, I wasn’t prepared when I neared the end of the novel. When I realized I only had a few pages left, I grew unsettled because I thought there was no way everything was going to resolve itself before I ran out of pages (I (in)conveniently didn’t read the text on the back of the novel that says “First book in a new trilogy”). Yet, Carson once again surprised me. The novel wrapped up fairly well, if easily. If it was a standalone novel, I might have even been okay with the ending simply because the plotline of finding people to trust resolves itself well. Even so, I’m glad to know there is more to Lee Westfall’s story.
Final verdict: This is definitely a promising beginning to Carson’s new Gold Seer Trilogy. It should appeal to anyone who likes a good voyage/pilgrimage plot with a tiny magical twist. I look forward to the next book and I think you will too once you finish this one.