Book review: ‘Walk on Earth a Stranger,’ by Rae Carson
Special to the Daily
On Sept. 22, New York Times best-selling author Rae Carson’s new young adult novel, “Walk on Earth a Stranger,” the first installment in her much-anticipated “Gold Seer Trilogy,” will hit shelves, and readers young and old can expect an engaging read set in a bygone era that is evocative of pastoral Americana, famously depicted in such classics as the “Little House on the Prairie” series and Vilhelm Moberg’s “Emigrant” novels. Carson’s book has a similarly old-fashioned feel to it, and she writes with a nostalgic voice that is refreshing in the modern literary sea of truncated slang with its style of prose that demands very little from the reader.
In addition to painting a believable portrait of 19th century America, Carson deftly integrates a fantastical component that will heighten the appeal for young readers who crave a little magic. The discovery of gold in California in 1849 lured a generation of settlers into unknown lands where the promise of riches was enough to uproot entire families bent on a new beginning and a better life.
Young Lee Westfall possesses a secret ability that, if discovered, will make her valuable to greedy gold diggers. Just as certain mystics boast of being able to divine underground water with only a simple stick and telepathic perceptions, Lee can sense gold, whether it’s a meandering vein deep beneath the earth or a shiny nugget in a creek bed.
Long before she even reaches California, betrayal and revenge arrive in the guise of a familiar face. She is forced to flee the family farm in rural Georgia, the only home she has ever known. She begins a journey that will test her ingenuity and her resolve to survive by her own wits. In a time when society’s expectations for women are narrow, the young heroine finds that the best way to hold onto her identity is to temporarily lose it.
She disguises herself as a young boy, one of many heading West to strike it rich. With nothing left for her in Georgia, and knowing she will have a tool more reliable for prospecting than a pick axe or a pan, she sets out, eager to put as much distance as possible between herself and the man who is hunting her for her gift of “gold sense.” She must brave the vast miles of prairie, mountains and desert that stand between all settlers and the promised rivers of gold in the West.
Astutely critical of the treatment of the Native Americans at the hands of the settlers, Carson touches on those injustices, and she manages to interlace her condemnation of that historical cruelty into the story. As Lee journeys further into the frontier, the myriad of characters who travel with her represent a realistic cross-section of the types of people who really would have been making that sort of odyssey in the age of Manifest Destiny.
From the thuggish men ready to make trouble to the well-to-do family traveling with all their worldly goods or the close-minded preacher and his beleaguered wife and the college lads looking for adventure before life pulls them into a rut of predictability and expectations, the motley assortment of strangers do their best to work together to move themselves toward a common goal of a better life.
Trust, friendship and loyalty vie against deception and treachery. Disease, accidents and the daily perils of frontier life all contribute to making “Walk on Earth a Stranger” very engrossing. Young readers will find it thrilling and informative; more mature readers will enjoy the evocative reminders of books from their youth.
Just as in Carson’s highly successful “Girl of Fire and Thorns” trilogy, the journey that unfolds is pure storytelling gold. Though “Walk on Earth a Stranger” is clearly a tale of fantasy, the heroine’s magical abilities are not used as a crutch upon which to hang an otherwise weak narrative. The author capably crosses genres and breaks stereotypes, and the result is an absorbing adventure that only hints at the thrills that will surely come in the next two books.
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