Saturday, March 14, 2015

West of the Moon, with Goats

Sometimes, I read a book, and I think that something serious has happened to my brain.  Is my neighbor burning special incense?  Did someone slip something into my coffee?  Is it a tumor?

Eeet's naht ah tooo-mah!

West of the Moon started out very strongly, and then ... drifted ... off into a wild land of dreams, deals with the devil, repressed memories, and cholera.  In order to make reading this review a bit easier, as it tends to wander off into strange places, I've inserted happy goat gifs to make you smile and not run away.  Plus, they also tie into the story.  Sort of.

*spoilers ahead*


Astri and Greta live with their Very Mean Aunt and Uncle in Norway.  The girls' father has gone off to America to work, and has promised to send for them as soon as he has enough money.  Only days, weeks, and years pass and he never sends for them.  Finally, reduced to eating bread made of bark, Aunt and Uncle sell Astri as a servant/future bride to Svaalberd, the Goat Man.  Here at the Goat Man's hovel, Astri suffers the usual abuses of the tragic heroine: beatings, imprisonment, attempted rape ... wait, what?  I thought this was a children's book!


Svaalberd is very interested in making Astri his bride.  He also has a girl imprisoned in the shed: she spins for him.  Astri names her Spinning Girl (what an imagination, eh?).

Astri and Spinning Girl escape and run off to rescue Greta, who's still living with Evil Aunt and Uncle.  Along the way, Astri gets frustrated with SG's slow gait and seeming inability to speak.  But they stick together because SG has Svaalberd's keys, and Astri pretends to herself that the Goat Man has troll treasure that can help them get to America.

I know, I know, this is Astri's way of coping with trauma: comparing her life to fairy tales.  But I always wondered just how much of it she really believed.  Why go all the way back to Goat Man's hovel for the imaginary troll hoard when you know it's a story you've been telling yourself?  Gah!

So Astri, Greta, and SG head for the fjord, hoping to sneak on a boat to America.  One day, Astri just decides to abandon SG with a nice family and steal their horse instead.  I did not like Astri very much before, and this was pretty much the icing on the cake.  She also cons a priest into giving her someone else's birth certificate.  Nice.

Finally, Astri and Greta get on a boat, the Columbus, which is headed for America.  Here, the buff Norvegian men perførm a dance abøøt kicking a hat intø the øcean.


Astri's mainly concerned that someone will figure out that they're stowaways, but when cholera sweeps the ship and Greta gets sick, Astri's got bigger fish to fry, and she's gonna fry them with a Black Book of magic and incantations and a little help from a wise woman who just happens to be part of Astri's repressed past.

Then, we get to the best part of the book.  By this, I mean the part that made my brain hurt and wonder what young person would actually get through this, especially if they weren't familiar with all of the folk tales that Preus was hurling left and right.

This is what I got out of it:  In trying to save her sister, Astri falls ill as well.  She gets magical gifts à la the heroine of "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," and climbs up a cliff.  She passes by God and instead has a drink with the devil.  He "gifts" her with the ability to see him: if he's at the head of a bed, that person will die; at the foot, they will live.  Naturally, when she wakes up, Astri uses this knowledge to trick the Devil out of Greta's life.  A random blacksmith on the ship adopts Greta, a parson's wife hires Astri, Astri falls in love-ish with a dude named Bjorn, and oh yeah, remembers that she had a twin sister who was ill and the wise woman on the boat tried to help her but mom dumped the sick twin in the woods and GUESS WHO SHE WAS?!?!?

Yes.  Astri abandoned her own sister with strangers back in Norway.  Dang, girl.


I did like that Preus added endnotes about rickets (which is what Astri's twin had), cholera, the Black Book, and other aspects of the story.  But that was about all I liked.

This had so much stuff crammed into it that I was constantly in fear of the story simply exploding all over, leaving me covered in guts made of words and punctuation marks.  There isn't so much a narrative arc as a narrative roller coaster that seems to follow no logical path.  Many of the topics introduced are a bit mature for elementary school readers.  I still have no clear understanding of what happened in Astri's dream/hallucination thing (or even of what the reader is supposed to make of that entire chapter).  None of the characters were particularly compelling.  Astri was infuriatingly selfish and dense, but that's about it.

I wonder at the praise that this receives.  Is it just the whole meta-fairy-tale incorporation?  Is it the immigrant angle?  What?

I really wanted to like this because the author is semi-local (she's from Minnesota; I'm from Wisconsin.  Neighbors!) and it involved one of my favorite fairy tales.  Instead, I got a hallucinogenic fever dream with black magic, childbirth, and goats.


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