Tuesday, April 15, 2014

2015 Contenders: West of the Moon, by Margi Preus

It may be my biases as a reader speaking, but I think folklore makes an excellent vehicle for discussing the subject of immigration. Folktales and myths are full of journeys, transformations, and unpredictable dangers. Sometimes the heroine of a folktale finds that the tools that have worked in her old life are no longer useful in the dark forest or cursed castle. Just as often, however, she finds that her whole life has been preparing her to defeat this dragon - that she has been building an arsenal without even realizing it.

Astri, the Norwegian protagonist of West of the Moon, is in the latter situation. Left behind when her father emigrated to America, separated from her younger sister and sold to a surly goatherd by her greedy aunt, her situation feels hopeless. Like Westley storming the castle with a wheelbarrow and Holocaust Cloak in The Princess Bride, though, she makes the most of her limited resources - even stealing when necessary. As Astri escapes from the clutches of the goat man and toward an America that feels as mythical as the land of Soria Moria, Preus interweaves her story with the Norwegian folktale, "East of the Sun and West of the Moon." As Astri tells the tale to herself and her sister, it serves as a bridge between her past and her future, while also shedding light on the deeper meaning of her journey.

This is, unquestionably, a first-rate novel. Preus easily hits all of the Newbery criteria high points. Her prose style is clear and lively, and the first-person present-tense narration is well-suited to the urgency of the plot. Settings are especially well-delineated, and Preus includes just enough sensory details to ground the story in a strong sense of place(s) without slowing down the pace. Characters are complex for the most part, though some of the secondary ones feel stock, and Astri and her sister show significant growth and development even in the space of a relatively short novel.

The tension between myth and reality is what really makes West of the Moon "distinguished" though - in both the senses of being "individually distinct" and "made conspicuous by excellence." I don't think I've ever seen folklore used in exactly this way, and that alone is enough to make me pay attention, especially when it often feels like children's literature is constantly repeating itself. But Preus doesn't just do something new here - she does it well. In her hands, a single folktale becomes a lens through which to view not just one girl, but a moment in the life of a culture.

As I read, my main question about West of the Moon had to do with its audience. There are some events in the first half of the book - most notably an attempted rape - that made me wonder if this is really more of a young adult novel than a juvenile one. In the end, though it walks that line as precariously as Far, Far Away does, I do think Astri's naivete and the youthful optimism of the tone places it in the juvenile zone. If the Newbery committee agrees, we may well see a sticker on this one in January. 

Published in April 2014 by Amulet Books (Abrams).


  1. I stumbled upon this blog by chance, and have now spent my entire planning period reading Sam's and yours (and the guest librarians') reviews.

    I read West of the Moon in the beginning of the summer, and I thought it was an absolute stunner. I loved both of Preus' previous books, but the combination of the oral tradition (and its mirroring to events shaping the character's life) was a masterful stroke. I also enjoyed that the near-fantasy moments (like finding the girl spinning yarn in the room) were actually realistic encounters that shaped Astri's journey. I agree with your comparison to Far, Far Away (which I thought was beautiful, but far too dark for the Newbery), and believe, too, that this will be a strong contender come awards time.

    If you ever would like another guest reviewer, I'd be happy to contribute. I've included a link to my library's page. My 6th graders and I always have a Mock Newbery. You can see the list on my website as well.

    Keep up the great work on this blog. It's terrific!

    1. Thanks so much for the (extremely) kind words! I'm so glad you've enjoyed reading.

      I loved looking at your Mock Newbery page for the 6th graders! If you'd like to contribute a review of any of your titles that we haven't already covered, please do! Email me at sam AT esrl DOT org, and we can go from there :D

  2. Seems the link didn't work. Here it is: http://www.northallegheny.org/site/Default.aspx?PageID=6320