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The 2017 CCR/CALS Community Read: Under a Painted Sky

Though sometimes considered conservative, the Western is an iconic American genre. It reflects both our violent history and our utopian desires for a space free from law but full of potential. Recent mediations of and hybrids with the Western have challenged our expectations and opened possibilities for new ways of thinking about the American West and its classic iconography. The choice for this year’s Centre County Reads and CALS Community Read book, Stacey Lee’s young adult novel Under a Painted Sky takes up many of these familiar icons: two outlaws on the run; cowboys headed West in search of Californian gold; survival, grit, and determination in the face of an unforgiving landscape. Yet Lee’s book also seeks to challenge some of the “old standards” by featuring young and diverse female protagonists: a second-generation Chinese-American violinist, and her friend escaping from slavery.

The Community Read is a joint venture between CALS and Centre County Reads designed to foster a sense of community and engagement with a single book. This year’s series kicked off at the Centre County Library and Historical Museum in Bellefonte on February 19 with a day of fun that featured music, period-themed food, storytelling, and games inspired by Lee’s novel. Visitors could take a tour of the Underground Railroad exhibit, dress up in cowboy gear, or join in on a continuous poker game. The Historical Museum offered information and activities about the Chinese Zodiac, plus tea and fortune cookies, and in the afternoon, featured ukulele lessons and a jam session with cowboy songs.

Following the kickoff event, CALS sponsored a roundtable discussion on “Rethinking the American West,” held in the Mann Assembly Room in Paterno/Pattee Library on April 3. The roundtable featured an excellent panel of scholars who used Under a Painted Sky as a touchstone to talk more about the American West in the cultural and literary imagination. Susan Kollin, College of Letters and Science Distinguished Professor at Montana State University, provided a reading of Lee’s novel as a revision and a corrective to the traditional masculinist narrative common to the Western genre. Charity Fox, Assistant Professor of American Studies and Gender Studies at Penn State Harrisburg, focused her remarks on the genre itself--its pop-culture history beginning in the 1950s through its contemporary, hybrid manifestations, to think about the West as a space for identity formation. Richard Aquila, Professor Emeritus of History and former Director of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Penn State Behrend, unfortunately could not attend the panel but sent his remarks to be read aloud. Aquila interpreted Lee’s novel not as revisionist or radical, but as reinforcing the traditional “American values” espoused by classics of the genre. Following the panelists’ remarks, audience members and panelists alike engaged in a lively discussion.

Writers in and around the Centre County and Penn State community participated in the “Wanted” writing contest, which aimed to evoke the classic “wanted” poster of the old West that appears in Under a Painted Sky, but also asked writers what it really means to be wanted. The word has both positive and negative connotations: it signifies pursuit, escape, and a sense of danger; but to be wanted is also to belong, which Samantha and Annamae learn on their journey in the novel. Among many great submissions five winning entries were selected, which you can read here.

Finally, as a culminating event in the series, Stacey Lee visited State College to discuss her novel and her work. At “An Evening with Stacey Lee,” held on April 6 at the Nittany Lion Inn, WPSU host Eleanor Klibanoff interviewed Lee about her writing process, her experiences as an Asian-American growing up without literary diversity (leading her to help found We Need Diverse Books), and her plans for future novels. Lee, who is a fourth-generation Chinese American, spent time looking through immigration stories and collecting the histories of Chinese-Americans in the nineteenth century, which inspired her to write Samantha and Annamae’s stories as well as her second novel, Outrun the Moon, set around the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The historical American West, Lee explained, serves as a rich setting for diverse and under-represented stories. Lee’s third novel, The Secret of a Heart Note, was released in December of 2016 and tells the tale of a young perfumer (and love-potion maker) who shares an interesting talent with Lee herself: a form of synesthesia that allows her to smell musical notes.

From the culturally and historically themed kickoff event to the popular book-signing that followed Lee’s public talk, the 2017 Community Read offered enriching and diverse opportunities for community engagement. This year’s choice of a young adult novel proved popular with teens and adults alike, marking another successful year of this joint venture between CALS and Centre County Reads.

You can read or listen to a review of Lee’s book by undergraduate intern Bailey Young, or see an overview of this year’s events here.