West of the Moon by Margi Preus was among the first batch of books I ordered in anticipation of the Armchair Cybils. It has been nominated for a Cybils in the middle grade fiction category. I actually first got wind of this new book on the Heavy Medal Mock Newbery blog, and because I’ve enjoyed everything by Preus I’ve ever read, I naturally wanted to read this one. This one, like her others, is historical fiction, but it’s also full of references to Norwegian folktales and fairytales, to the point that the lines almost blur between reality and fantasy. It’s the story of Astri and her little sister Greta who live in mid-nineteenth-century Norway. As the story opens, they live in poverty with their aunt and uncle. Their mother is dead and their father has left them behind to make his fortune in America. This situation changes in the first chapter, though, as Astri is sold to be the hired girl of a cruel and lecherous man she calls the goatman. The first part of the book is Astri’s life with the goatman and how she plots and plans to escape. While she lives with him, he locks her in an outbuilding for punishment, and inside this building she discovers a mysterious and unusual girl who doesn’t talk but does marvelous work with a spinning wheel. With the help of Spinning Girl, Astri manages to escape the goatman’s clutches and rescue her sister. Part two details the difficulties they face as they attempt their own trip to America. Part three follows their voyage to their new home. Every bit of their journey is thanks to Astri’s moxie and determination, yet she is fraught with guilt and self-doubt:
I feel as if my insides are made of hard knots and pebbles, balls of sticky tallow, tangles of yarn, and lumps of ash. If we go back, then we go backward in time, and Greta and I will be milkmaids and serving girls forever, or married to smelly goat men, with no say in what we do or where we do it. In America, goat girls can become princesses or parsons, or whoever they want to be. I don’t know if that is generally so, but that’s the way it’s going to be for Greta and me. And anyway, there’s another problem. We’re thieves, or at least I am, and could be considered a murderer besides, and there are laws against such things and prisons, too, and I suppose a prison wouldn’t be much of an improvement over the goatman’s farm. (122-23)
Obviously, Preus is a master at getting into Astri’s head and showing the feelings and thoughts of this very strong heroine.
One of several themes in this story is the prevalence of superstition in the lives of these Norwegians, especially as it is all mixed up in their religion, Christianity. Preus treats it with a deft touch, especially as a surprising character helps Astri understand a little bit of truth when they’re on board the ship bound for America. Another theme of the story is one of sickness and disease and how much of what these people believed superstitiously had to do with simple things like good nutrition and healthcare. In fact, the Author’s Note provides information about things like rickets, cholera, and lockjaw, as well as the many folktales and spells, charms, and curses in the book. We also learn in the backmatter of the book that Preus based the story in part on her great-great-great-grandmother’s diary. There are a few excerpts from the diary, as well as a glossary and selected bibliography for the story. This is a well-researched piece of historical fiction.
Overall I enjoyed this story. I found it suspenseful and well-written, as I expect of anything by Margi Preus. However, the book ends before the girls actually arrive in America, and there are questions left unanswered. I really, really want to know about the Spinning Girl, for example. I assumed that some of these things would be cleared up once Astri and Greta are reunited with their father, but alas, that doesn’t happen in this volume. I actually prefer a self-contained story, though, so I consider this a weakness. I should also note that there is an attempted rape at the beginning of the story. While it is not explicit (and nothing actually happens), there is no doubt as to the intention of the villain. I would consider that part emotionally intense. This would be a good story for upper-elementary to junior high students who are interested in immigration, Scandinavia, or those who enjoy fairy tales or adventure stories. I’ll be interested to see how this one fares in all the award garnering. Highly Recommended. (Amulet, 2014)
- My review of Shadow on the Mountain by Margi Preus (middle grade fiction, Norway during World War II, Resistance movement, based on a true story)
- My review of Celebritrees by Margi Preus (nonfiction picture book about famous trees of the world)
- My review of Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus (2011 Newbery honor book; fictionalized account of Manjiro, the first Japanese person to come to America)
- Margi Preus’ website