Trolls, a spell book, spinning straw into gold, and a magic hairbrush….all of these elements weave together in the tale of Astri and her sister, Greta, in a story that is part fantasy, part folk tale, part history, and completely enchanting. Astri is a young girl in Norway who is sold to a cruel goat farmer, the evil Svaalberd. Despite her miserable conditions and the separation from her beloved sister, Astri never loses faith that her situation will improve. She escapes, through impossible odds, and is off on a journey to find her father in America.
While this story is based in folk tale, the story is original and brings to light many interesting topics for discussion. The power of stories and truth weave a powerful thread throughout the novel, as Astri tells stories that often stray quite far from the truth, and then wonders, is it worse to her to her sister through a story or steal from a cruel master? Astri doesn’t answer this question, but continues to wonder about truth and stories, the “thin thread of truth” left after the spinning yarn of gold disappears. Astri’s character is also perfect for discussion, as she is honest, flawed, cunning, manipulative, dishonest and well intentioned even when all odds are against her. She is determined to escape, even when that requires her to lie (a magic hairbrush!) in order to get what she needs for her journey. She is a well-rounded character, one which the reader roots for and also questions, wondering just what she will do next.
Another element that I love about this book is the history. No doubt all readers will walk away with new knowledge about immigration and the people who made the perilous voyage to the new world, despite the difficulties. Astri and her sister procure a list of necessities for the journey that will surprise young readers, most likely unfamiliar with the food and personal necessities that a person had to bring on board, in addition to their passage fare. The realities of a long boat journey are seen through Astri and Greta’s eyes. Readers will also appreciate the struggles that people faced just to board the boat and pay for their passage, not an easy task.
In all, this book raises many questions about Astri’s actions, the morality of people and doing what is right, family values and forgiveness. Astri is a complicated girl who will no doubt provoke discussion about what is right and wrong, what one should do for others and for oneself, and whether it is ever justified to lie or steal. No matter the conclusions of the reader, everyone will understand the difficulties of journeying to a new, unknown land and the perilous undertaking of two children who desperately want to be with their father.
At the close of the book, you will find the Author’s Note which is packed full of useful information, history, photos of the author’s great-great-grandmother’s diary from her journey to America on board the Columbus in 1851. Norwegian folk tales and fairy tales also provided the author with inspiration and material for West of the Moon, and Preus lists some of the folk tales she references in the novel (including “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”). Also helpful is the glossary of Norwegian words as well as the bibliography for further reading.
Important Quotations for Discussion
- “The sun is ahead of him now; he is walking west. West. That is the direction I will have to go to get to America. Spinning Girl presses a damp rag to my face and wipes the blood and filth from my limbs. When I’m as clean as I’m going to get, she goes back to her work. As she spins her yarn, I spin a golden dream out of dust motes. A dream of going to America.” (page 40)
- “Quickly, without letting myself think about it, I unpin Mama’s brooch from my dress and pin it on Spinning Girl’s. By the look on her face, I’ll wager she’s never been given anything like it. Or any gift at all, most like. Still, somehow, I feel that it’s I who have been given the greater gift.” (page 100)
- “She looks at me sadly and pushes two of the bigger coins back to me across the counter. ‘Use these coins wisely,’ she says. ‘They’re only a trifle, but a mere trifle is often enough when luck is on your side.'” (page 119)
- “Greta is silent, and I think of how Papa used to say, ‘Sometimes silence is an answer.’ The little brook we ride along chatters so much, there’s hardly need for us to talk anyway.” (page 123)
- “‘Perhaps you and I could be friends,’ she says. I can only nod, for suddenly my eyes are full of tears. A symptom of my bad eyes, must be. I wipe them dry and look out at the sea. At that moment, sea and sky go dark and seem to disappear altogether. Then, as if by magic, they are rekindled, this time with a pale glean – not like daylight, yet not dark night either. It’s the moon, rising up full behind us, casting a blue glow over the world as we sail toward the last of the sun. Though I don’t know everything about my past, nor do I know what the future will bring, right now I know I’m just where I belong: sailing on a perfect ocean of light, east of the sun and west of the moon.” (page 197)
- Astri’s Journal. Write three journal entries from Astri’s point of view. Include at least one from her journey escaping the evil Svaalberd and at least during the time on the boat to America. Think about what details Astri would want to include and what she might want to tell her father about the adventures.
- Greta’s thoughts. Write a chapter from Greta’s point of view, perhaps waiting for Astri to arrive, on the journey to the sea shore or on the boat to America. Think about how Greta would view the events and what she would choose to retell in her story. Think about how her story would be different from Astri’s version of the story.
- Father’s letters. Write one of Father’s letters to Astri and Greta, one which the girls are not able to read. What does he tell them about America? His journey? His plans for the future?
Have you read West of the Moon? Or other novels based on a folk tale or fairy tale such as this? Please share!