West of the Moon by Margi Preus – Review by Valinda Kimmel
Before she ever reaches the age of 15, Astri sees her mother buried and her father leave for America, stands by helplessly as her nearest relatives sell her to a grimy goat farmer, and is separated from her younger sister in the bewitching adventure story West of the Moon by Margi Preus. Astri is no subservient dairymaid. This girl is cunning, wickedly funny, and absolutely reckless.
Driven by her desire to reunite her family, Astri steals a bag of coins and a book of spells, rescues her sister from the heartless relatives, and strikes out hoping to board a ship for America. A mysterious silent girl accompanies the two sisters at one point as they are relentlessly pursued by Svaalberd the goat farmer. According to the book blurb, the young companions “head over the Norwegian mountains, through field and forest, and in and out of folktales and dreams as they steadily make their way east of the sun and west of the moon.”
Enamored by a collection of beloved Norwegian folk tales she holds in her memory, Astri lives her days caught between the beauty of the stories and the grim reality of her life.
In the story, the young maid climbed upon the white bear’s back, and he said, “Are you afraid?”
No, she wasn’t.
“Have you ever sat softer or seen clearer?” the white bear asked.
“No never!” said she.
Well. That is a story and this is my real life, and instead of White Bear King Valemon, I’ve got Old Mr. Goat Svaalberd …
When the youngest daughter arrived at the bear’s house, it was a castle she found, with many rooms all lit up, rooms gleaming with gold and silver, a table already laid, everything as grand as grand could be. Anything she wanted, she just rang a little silver bell, and there it was.
Not so for me, for when I come to the lair of Mr. Goat, it is a hovel, and filthy inside.
—Margi Preus, West of the Moon
I live for middle grade and YA novels with strong female protagonists; Astri fits the bill perfectly. Her story created this beautiful battle within me. I found myself cheering her on as she planned her escape, but also wanting to chide her for her dreadful choices. It doesn’t matter though because life is hard and messy and complicated. And I got to slog through that with Astri.
This book deals so skillfully with the tough issue of how those who have been victimized are capable themselves of odious acts. That’s one of the reasons I love that Margi Preus wrote this book for those middle grade readers we care so deeply about. If you’ve spent any time at all with kids, you know that many of them have already lived a lifetime of heartache in a few short years. This exquisite book has the power to allow countless kids to live vicariously through tough bits of life in the safety of its pages. And to draw comfort and inspiration from a character who pursues her dream at all cost.
I’m always captivated by what Inspires authors to create memorable reads for kids and teens: a simple black and white photograph, traveling on a crowded train from Manchester to London, a childhood love of Greek mythology, vintage opera glasses given as a gift. In her author’s note, Margi Preus writes of her ancestors—Linka Preus and husband Herman, a Lutheran pastor—who sailed from Norway to America in 1851. And the few simple lines of the woman’s worn diary that spun the enchanting tale that would become West of the Moon in her mind.
I went back downstairs again, bringing with me a pretty farmer girl, Margit, whom Herman and I had thought about taking as our maid … I said that I knew she was alone and that she did not have anyone to support her, and if I could do her a favor by engaging her, then I would do it.
West of the Moon is about the tricky task of forgiving and extending grace; not just reaching out in compassion to others who have abused or neglected, but proffering that same mercy to oneself for countless personal transgressions. The conversations that will invariably come as readers explore ideas and possible themes from this book will be illuminating, challenging, and possibly life changing. I know it was for me.
Get yourself to the nearest bookstore and buy a copy.
No, wait. Buy an armload and give them away. People you know, old and young, will love this redemptive tale.
Valinda Kimmel fervently believes in the transformative power of great books. She’s flipped through lots of calendar pages since beginning a career as a teacher nearly three decades ago. She currently works as a teacher facilitator/instructional coach for the language arts department in a large school district in Bedford, Texas. After hours, Valinda loves lazy evenings and long conversations with her husband Mark, and spending time with her adult children, their spouses, and three of the most brilliant “littles” in her world. She hopes that you’ll engage in spirited parleys with her on Twitter (@vrkimmel) and on her blog at http://uberscholar.jimdo.com/