(Have some Stash Orange Spice tea with Harley Quinn to celebrate Suicide Squad coming out this weekend!)
I don’t like reading a reviewer’s synopsis of a book and I hate trying to write them, so here, have a synopsis from Goodreads:
Astri is a young Norwegian girl desperate to join her father in America. After being separated from her sister and sold to a cruel goat farmer, Astri makes a daring escape. She quickly retrieves her little sister, and, armed with a troll treasure, a book of spells and curses, and a possibly magic hairbrush, they set off for America. With a mysterious companion in tow and the malevolent “goatman” in pursuit, the girls 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.
Would you believe that I’d never read a version of “East Of the Sun, West Of the Moon” before I started reading this book? I got a chapter in and realized, Hey, I should actually know something about the titular fairytale. So I found a version and read it. All the Cupid and Psyche/Beauty and the Beast parallels are wonderful. I love fairytale crossovers. I also love “lost husband” fairytales. You go, ladies, get your man back.* But I digress.
West Of the Moon, first of all, is a very well-conceived book. The writing is tight, and the first-person narrator Astri’s voice is consistent as well as really, really compelling (more on that later). The idea is one that could, potentially, be amazing – something on par with The Book Thief. I mean, a real-life situation, except that it takes place in several Norwegian fairytales? I’m not a big fan of incorporating history into fairytales, especially 19th-century America stories – it’s not a quality thing, just an irrational preference, probably due to a surfeit of My America journals when I was little – but this could have been great.
I’m just not a huge fan of where Preus decided to go with the story. The integration of historical and fairytale didn’t mesh well; it was one of those books where the boundary between the two aren’t clearly defined, and not in a sort of magical-realism way. Just in a way that confuses you because you don’t know what is allowed to be magical and what’s not.
At first I keep an eye on the girl, wondering if she’s human or what. Could she be a hulder-maid – one of the invisibles, as Svaalberd said? Her work seems to go from dusk until dawn, as they say the huldrefolks‘ does.
…What is it, I wonder, that makes us human?
The book starts out mostly on the side of a fairytale, with 1) a wicked goatman, 2) a promise of Astri’s family’s wealth in exchange for, well, Astri, 3) a promise of huldre-folk in the woods outside Astri’s wretched new home with said goatman. There’s also Spinning Girl, whose appearance in the story is very fairytale-coded; I couldn’t wait for her to throw down some magic. And yeah, the point towards getting to America was okay, but honestly, when fictional characters from 1800s Europe are all, “Yeah, let’s go to America!” it just depresses me, so I was hoping for more fairytale, less historical quest; after all, it’s called West Of the Moon, not West Of the Statue Of Liberty. I feel like my expectations were justified, at least in part. (I read The Jungle in high school and it scarred me for life. No “we’re immigrants to America!” story can make me hopeful for their fates anymore. But I digress again.)
But while the first part of the book (there are three) is more fairytale, with more potential for magic, the second two parts go mostly for “our journey to America kind of follows in ‘East Of the Sun, West Of the Moon’s and other fairytales’ footsteps.” Which was kind of disappointing, because it still tries to have a sort of fairytale structure – small mini-adventures that happen because they just do – but while in a historical-fiction context. The two pieces of the story don’t fit together well; it’s like a puzzle where you’re frustrated and shove two parts together and know they don’t fit but they look like they should, so there. And later, in an even more grieving scene, Astri and her little sister, Greta, turn the fairytale tropes into scams – I kid you not – so they can get onboard the America-bound ship. I kid you not.
“Let’s go in [the church],” Greta says. “I need to seek forgiveness for something.”
“You!” I exclaim. “What need have you for forgiveness?”
“We are none of us as we ought,” she says, which raises my eyebrows, you can be sure.
The saving grace of this book is Astri’s narration. First-person POV is a double-edged sword, but it’s one that Preus knows how to wield. Astri is a complex kid – an earthy, no-nonsense, irascible girl, with a huge source of a kind of amoral courage that helps her do whatever she thinks she needs to do, even if that’s not actually the best idea. While I wasn’t always pleased by how the book treated Astri’s misdeeds, I loved how it dealt with her emotional arc; Astri knows she’s no hero and no saint. It’s not that she’s morally ambiguous, it’s just that she acts first and regrets later, and while that could be annoying, Astri’s circumstances make it understandable (most of the time; we can’t forget about stealing and selling someone’s horse, which has no negative consequences or guilt). I just loved Astri a lot! I didn’t mention her narration but I should, because that’s where the real gift of first-person comes through. Astri is blunt and down-to-earth and so is her narration.
“Now it’s your turn to say some scriptures,” Greta says.
I recite the only scripture that comes to mind. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a goatman to enter the kingdom of heaven. So, old Svaalberd, I’m not sure you’re going to make it. Amen.”
So, the cons of this book: it promises a fairytale, then systematically crushes every magical occurrence with a sense of realism and says that fairytales are mostly useful for conning people out of money. Then it reverses on itself and ends on an incredibly fantastical note that just feels contrived after going all those lengths to make the fairytale aspect more realistic.
The pros: it’s a wonderful concept, with wonderful writing and a wonderful narrator.
I would recommend it, despite my issues with it, because it might be right up someone else’s alley. If you get a hankering for a hint of Norwegian myth and dream-magic in your historical fiction, West Of the Moon could be exactly what you’re looking for.
* Though Astri’s journey is leading her, not to a husband, but to her father in America, which would probably make Broseph Campbell roll in his grave shouting “ELECTRA COMPLEX!” or something. Okay, probably not, but the mental image made me giggle.