Thursday, July 24, 2014

West of the Moon by Margi Preus

A clever mix of 19th century immigration, folktales, and folklore makes this a fascinating read. Astri, a Norwegian girl, has been sold by her aunt to a nasty neighbor, Mr. Svaalberd, to help him with his goat farm. From the time she first saw Mr. Svaalberd, Astri saw signs of a man with questionable intentions, sleeping at night with a knife under her pillow for protection. She is a plucky survivalist who uses her wits by taking advantage of opportunities to try and get herself and her sister on a ship from Norway to America. Her father left Astri and her sister in the care of an aunt who sells Astri as a servant to Mr Svaalberd. Astri deals with her situation and abuse under Svaalberd by making comparisons with the folktale character in "East of the Sun West of the Moon." This theme of how stories help people deal with reality is tightly knit throughout this tale. In a nice balance of dark and light, Astri humorously calls Svaalbeard, "Old Goatbeard," "Mr. Goat," and "Goatman" comparing him to the Three Billy Goats Gruff. She also recognizes Svaalberd's stories of the hidden folk or "huldrefolk" are meant to keep her from running away. Preus captures a time when Christianity and the old religion live side-by-side; a time when one God and science along with superstitions, folklore, and magic are used to define the unexplainable and people believe in each to varying degrees.

Preus has terrific character development and beautiful sentences. When Astri meets the mute girl she dubs her, "Spinning Girl," because she is an incredible weaver. Astri tells her stories: "That's what I tell her, but as her wheel whirs, my mind whirs along with it, and soon I've run out of golden thread with which to spin my pretty stories and I'm left with just the thin thread of truth. And that wiry, rough little thread tells me that if anyone is going to do any rescuing in this place, it's going to have to be me." She uses stories to comfort herself and also give her strength to take action. She is strong-spirited and makes good and bad decisions in her quest to get to America.

This book has many authentic and historical details. Astri makes up names for the people in the story such as Spinning Girl, Goatman, which made me think of how the Norwegians made up nicknames describing people. The Vikings had "Erik the Red," "Unn the deep-minded," and "Gudrun the Fair" to name a few. There was "Haakon the Good," the King that established Christianity. Preus also includes small details such as the Sølje brooch that is Norway's traditional silver, flatbread, goat bells, the Seter, old Norsk versus new Norsk, and more. I wondered how a poor goat farmer could afford help, but Spinning Girl would have made Goatman money. People would pay for a warm coat or jacket during the cold winter months and her weaving would have given him more money than his poor goat farm. If you are interested in a historical book that explains Norwegian economy and the importance of textiles, as well as farming, then read the archeological book, "The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman," by Nancy Marie Brown.  It shows how spot-on Preus is with her details. The only question I had is the use of "lass" and "wee" throughout the story by Goatman and the farmer's wife. I'm not sure that the Scottish language would have influenced the dialect in a remote rural Norwegian village, but hey, those Vikings got around. Maybe it did. My relatives always used "lite" or "liten" for little and a child was a "barn." But dialects vary all over Norway and I don't know how much other countries influenced European languages in the 19th century.

Another terrific detail is the provisions needed to bring in an immigrant's trunk. I know many families that still have these trunks in Minneapolis and I am amazed to think of what they had brought from Norway. Preus details their provisions and it is mind-boggling. Right now I'm looking at my great-grandma's rosemaled bread basket thinking of her packing for America. Did she bring 24 pounds of meat like in this story? Did she bring too much butter like the man in this story that Astri steals from? One warning about content is that Goatman attempts to sexually assault Astri, but it is written in a straight-forward way and Astri doesn't dwell on it. This part might bother some readers while others will not be fine with it. Also, even though Astri is a victim, she does terrible things as well. She steals to survive. She hurts others. But she has a conscience and struggles with her decisions. She regrets her mistakes and has an admirable self-reflective honesty. As a character, she is very real. This is a tale of redemption. Astri must learn to forgive herself and others to move on and find happiness in her life. A Newbery contender. Don't miss it.

5 Smileys

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post on unlikable characters: