Book review: Walk on Earth a Stranger, Rae Carson

Rae Carson’s Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy was an important entry into the YA fantasy canon, and I was deeply curious when Walk on Earth a Stranger came out. She’d proved herself to be a strong, dynamic, interesting writer who was willing to push boundaries when it came to fantasy, but what about a historical novel? It’s a completely different change of tack, one in which the same level of worldbuilding is required, but it has to be paired with meticulous research to make sure the world is believable and to avoid getting caught out on anachronistic inclusions — though allowances must be made within historical fiction to acknowledge that sometimes certain things must shift in favour of plot.

For those unfamiliar, Walk on Earth a Stranger is set in the mid-1800s, with the country flocking to California in search of newfound gold in the hopes of seeking a better future. And it’s not a straight historical, because it has an important fantastical element: Our lead character, Leah, has the ability to sense gold, almost like a living dowsing rod. It makes her extremely valuable to her family, but it’s also something that endangers her, as it’s a trait that many people would understandably want to take advantage of if they could. When her parents are killed and she’s left alone in the world, she decides to strike out from the family homestead in the South and make her way to California, but along the way she faces considerable challenges not just as a young person traveling a harsh road alone, but specifically as a young woman. 

There’s an entire generation of us who grew up playing Oregon Trail and absorbing the questionable messaging about manifest destiny and right to the land, but also the strange thrill of equipping our wagons and setting out across the hostile landscape of the United States in an era where travel by land was slow, painstaking, and often deadly. Our families routinely died, sometimes not far from their end destination, in a grim childhood lesson about the fleeting nature of life, and, of course, the mortality rate on Oregon Trail has become an enduring joke. We have all died of dysentery at some point or another. (Somewhat intriguingly, Oregon Trail never made mention of the origins of Oregon as a white supremacist paradise, but I digress.)

Walk on Earth a Stranger at times feels like an almost sly nod to Oregon Trail, but that might be nostalgia talking, because covered wagons and death tend to evoke the game for me. It’s also, of course, a real callback to the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, which explored the era of westward expansion and the realities for families eking out a living on the prairie. In this case, of course, it’s about the journey, not stops to create settlements and homesteads, though Carson noted in her guest of honour speech at Sirens that Wilder’s books reflect not just the deep ideal of individualism that characterises the United States, but also libertarianism. Pa has decided ideas about independence from the state, and those same ideas were very predominant at the time. They’re reflected in the attitudes of many of the people Leah meets and travels with.

Leah must make swift, tough choices about her life once she realises that she’s not just venturing to a new life: She’s also on the run from the old one. She takes on the classic tack of dressing as a boy to give herself more independence and freedom and dangerously makes her way across the landscape in the hopes of attaching herself to a wagon train heading West. Along the way, she links up with a haughty family preparing to settle in California, reconnects with her childhood best friend, and eventually gets herself hired on to a wagon train, setting out across the United States in the company of an assortment of people from varied backgrounds, from a group of gay men with a beloved Jersey cow to hardened cattlemen hoping to bring meat across the country to sell at a profit in California to hungry miners.

‘Lee’ fits well into the community, even as some people are wary of him and he’s endlessly paranoid about being caught out. As their party dwindles and the remaining members of the community draw closer and closer together in protection, they endure a series of hardships that allows them to forge deeper connections with each other, which proves vital when they’re faced with incredibly tough challenges, right down to Leah’s ultimate unmasking and an unpleasant meetup with her hostile uncle attempting to lay claim to her once they arrive in California.

I deeply enjoyed Walk on Earth a Stranger on a lot of levels, but I was continually struck by what it illustrated about Carson herself. The book was meticulously and beautifully researched — I’m not a historian specialising in the era, but Carson clearly put a great deal of work into it, as I know not just from reading but from her discussions at Sirens — and the level of detail shows without becoming obtrusive. She also demonstrated that she’s not just adept at writing epic fantasy, but also historical novels, and given that these are two completely different genres with very disparate skillsets, I was highly impressed. Yes, both rely at their core on strong characters, good plots, thorough worldbuilding, thoughtful development, but the distinctions between the two are important, and Carson needs to be commended for venturing outside her zone of familiarity — she quickly proved after one set of books that she didn’t want to be boxed in with fantasy and a single genre. Notably, the literary community shares my beliefs about the book — among other things, it was longlisted for the National Book Award, which is no mean feat.

You have to go read Walk on Earth a Stranger, if nothing else because I need someone to suffer with me while I wait for the next book to come out so I can find out what happens to Leah in California.