West of the Moon
by Margi Preus
Thank goodness for gentle stories that take you by the hand (much like the girls on the cover of the book) and take you into mountains, woods, and valleys, and even aboard ships. West of the Moon is a journey like that.
Astri is our storyteller, and she begins by sharing the tale of the white bear that wants to take a family’s daughter away, promising them whatever they wanted in exchange for her. From the beginning, parallels between Astri’s real story and the ones she tells interweave, layering folktale upon fairytale with a pinch of magic. Astri and her younger sister, Greta, are, for all intents and purposes, orphans. Their mother is dead, and their father left Norway to seek his fortune in America. He promises to send for them someday, but so much time has passed already that Astri begins to take things into her own hands.
Like the white bear in the folktale, a smelly, bearded goatman comes to the home where Astri and Greta live, and he buys Astri from the adults who were taking care of the girls until their father’s return. Clearly, they have given up on him. Astri leaves her sister and spends months as the goatman’s servant. In spite of harsh treatment and disgusting surroundings, she perseveres, always looking for a way to escape, return to her sister, and run away to the shipyard where she and Greta can sneak aboard and find their way to America.
The adventure begins when Astri makes her escape, takes with her an odd spinning girl (another prisoner of the goatman), and rescues her sister. Through every twist and turn of the race to the coast, the goatman pursues her. Astri recounts different fairy tales and folktales along the way as those stories seem to match her own perils.
This book glows with a soft nostalgia of long-ago times and tales that reminded me of the stories I loved as a child, yet feels fresh and carries a hint of a historical novel, especially once the girls are aboard the ship sailing for America at a time when so many were leaving Europe for a better life elsewhere. Readers will hope with, cheer for, and relate to Astri as she struggles with her darker side in order to achieve a greater purpose.