West of the Moon -- Margi Preus
Last week, in the comments of my post about YA Stories with Roots in Norse Mythology, a couple of books were recommended. One of those books was Icefall, which I PROMISE I'll get to (it's actually in a pile of books sitting RIGHT NEXT TO ME on the couch), and the other was Margi Preus' West of the Moon.
In recommending it, CC said: Not Norse mythology, but a fascinating immigration/unreliable narrator/Norse fairy tale combination: West of the Moon, by Margi Preus which I LOVED (and I think you would like too, even though it's more middle grade. The narrator is just your type.)
And she was totally right on all counts! What can I say? She knows me well.
West of the Moon opens with thirteen-year-old Astri's aunt and uncle selling her to a goat-herder:
Now I know how much I'm worth: not as much as Jesus, who I'm told was sold for thirty pieces of silver. I am worth two silver coins and a haunch of goat.
She lives with and works for the filthy and brutish Svaalberd for months—she eats better with him, but she also sleeps with a knife under her pillow to fend off possible advances—waiting and watching for an opportunity to escape. Finally, her plans can't be put off any longer: a young man passes through on his way to catch a ship to America, and Svaalberd is finally about to make good on his threat to marry her.
She has two weeks to escape, get back to her aunt and uncle's house, grab her sister and get to the docks. Not to mention figuring out what to do with Svaalberd's OTHER prisoner, finding birth certificates, scrabbling together the money for passage (as well as the huge list of supplies required for the voyage), and avoiding re-capture. Achieving a single thing on that list would be NO SMALL FEAT, but Astri has to complete them ALL. And, despite her love for fairy tales, she doesn't have magic on her side, and no prince is going to rescue her. She just has herself: her lying, stealing, cheating, canny, bright, survivor self.
So much to love here!
Astri. She is, as I've said, perfectly willing to lie, to cheat, and to steal. She's also not just willing, but UNFLINCHING, when it comes to using violence to protect not just herself, but HER STUFF. She's wonderfully contradictory: On one hand, she's a loving girl with empathy for others, but on the other, she doesn't allow that empathy to override her practicality. After months with Svaalberd, most people would have ended up submissive or even with a serious case of Stockholm Syndrome, but not Astri:
He doesn't reproach me or threaten me as I expect. He says, "Come summer, we will go down to the church and have the parson marry us. Then I'll take you to my bed."
"One of us will go to hell first," I mumble.
Above all, she is a GIRL OF ACTION:
"...And so shall someone rescue us, I shouldn't wonder."
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 from this place, it's going to have to be me.
She is feisty and difficult and I have no doubt that plenty of readers won't find her at all likable, but I loved her, full stop.
The fairy tales. As her journey goes on, Astri comments on the parallels between her story and various Norwegian fairy tales, spinning the two together into a cohesive whole. For another character, it would be a coping mechanism, a distancing one, but Astri uses them to understand her own situation more clearly. She's always up-front about how the stories differ from each other, and unlike in the folktales, in her story, the actions she takes actually have consequences for herself and for other people. The villains, too—her aunt and uncle, Svaalberd—aren't demonized, they aren't simply flat-out monsters. They DO act monstrously, but Astri has an impressively fair-minded perspective of them, in that she considers their situations, their motivations, their outlooks.
The history. Beyond the fairy tales, beyond the adventure, West of the Moon is an AWESOME work of historical fiction about family, immigration, about trying to better your situation, and again, about becoming your own rescuer. Preus works in a TON of details about the period, the place, and the culture—I especially loved all of the commentary about the shift/clash between folk beliefs and church beliefs—but she does it so organically that I didn't even pick up on most of them until I read her (fantastically extensive) Author's Note and Bibliography.
TL;DR: OMG SO GOOD, LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE.
Book source: Netgalley.