Wednesday, July 2, 2014

West of the Moon by Margi Preus

After having read Shadow on the Mountain by Margi Preus, I knew I had to read West of the Moon as well, because even though the two novels are very different from each other, they both deal with strong young protagonists who refuse to simply accept their harsh circumstances at the hand of a cruel master.  In Shadow, it is Hitler, in West of the Moon it is a simple goatman.

West of the Moon is introduced with the beginning of the Norwegian folktale East of the Sun, West of the Moon, in which a poor father with many children gives his youngest daughter to a great White Bear so that the family can now be as rich as they had once been poor.

For 13 year old Astri, this folktale has parallels to her life, but the circumstances are very different, as she tells us throughout her story.

Asti's mother has died and her father has left Norway and gone to America to seek his fortune, leaving her and younger sister Greta, 8, to live with their greedy aunt and uncle and their daughters. Needless to say, they are not treated well.  One night, a great big goat farmer with a hunchback, Mr. Svaalberd, comes to the house, gives the aunt two gold coins and takes Astri back to his isolated mountain hut.

In the folktale, the bear treats the daughter well, they live in a castle, eat well and have fine things.  Astri's new home is filthy, she is expected to do great amounts of hard, dirty work and the food is wonderful either.  The bear treated his daughter like a princess; the goatman treats his like a servant he is entitled to hit and even beat when he is angry at her for something, which is often.

After she is locked in a storehouse shed, Astri discovers a young girl upstairs sitting at a spinning wheel and spinning beautiful yarn.  The girl doesn't speak, but over time she cares for Astri's wounds each time the goatman hits her.

Astri is smart and quick-witted, so when the goatman decides they are to be married, she knows she has to do something drastic and quickly, then go get her sister Greta and try to find their father.  Taking the goatman's treasure and his book of spells, Astri and Spinning Girl run away, pursued by the goatman.

Eventually, Astri and Greta find their way to the ship that is taking all the people afflicted with "America Fever" to find their dreams and, for the sisters, maybe their father.

Nothing is ever as easy as a synopsis makes it sound and that is very true of West of the Moon.  Astri faces all kinds of hardships and dangers throughout her adventure.  And she meets all kinds of people - some kind, some not. And while Astri is a strong, brave survivor, she also isn't above a little lying, cheating or stealing of her own in order to save herself, Greta and even Spinning Girl.  On the other hand, she is aware of this side of her survival personality and totally owns it.  I think this makes her the best kind of hero.

Preus is such an excellent storyteller that she can even manage to convey hope even at the darkest moments.  She has written a wonderfully magical novel, despite its episodes of violence.  I did think that the parallel of the original folktale and the harsh reality of Astri's story might help to temper some of the more difficult aspects of the story, particularly those surrounding Astri's getaway from the goatman, making it more digestible for sensitive readers.

In her Author's Note, Margi Preus writes that the roots of this novel lie in the diary of her great great grandmother Linka, who came to this country from Norway with her minister husband around the same time Astri and Greta would have.  In fact, some of the shipboard incidents are lifted right out of the diary - you can read the notes to find out exactly which ones.

You do not need to be familiar with the folktale East of the Sun, West of the Moon, but you might want to give it a read anyway at some point.  There are references to other Nordic tales as well, that are listed in the back matter that young readers might also be interested in reading in conjunction with West of the Moon. 

This is a wonderful novel and I highly recommend this magical book.  I couldn't put it down when I read it.

This book is recommended for readers age 11+
This book was an ARC from the publisher.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Alex, this sounds wonderful, perfect holiday reading. I’ve seen a few versions of East of the Sun, West of the Moon but my favourite has to be the one illustrated by Kay Nielson. The words and pictures together represent everything that is magical to me.


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