West of the Moon by Margi Preus

west of the moonWest of the Moon is historical fiction that weaves in so much folklore it sometimes feels like a folk tale itself.

Astri and her little sister live with their aunt, uncle, and cousins on a small farm in Norway. Astri’s mother is dead, and her father has gone to America. At the very beginning of the book, Astri’s aunt and uncle sell her to a hunchback goat herder as a servant girl, which sets in motion a sweeping almost-fantasy story as Astri plots her escape and tries to reunite with the rest of her family in America.

What follows is a complicated weaving of retellings of Scandinavian folk tales as reimagined and relived by Astri. Nothing that actually happens in the book is unrealistic, but because every step of Astri’s journey mirrors an event from a folk tale, it feels fantastic.

Astri is a great example of a Strong Female Character that isn’t actually patronizing. So many SMCs in middle grade fiction are just plucky little girls with a lot of gumption who like to wear jeans and play with the boys and “aw shucks do I have to wear a dress?” Astri will cut off your fingers and lie and run and fight and also constantly question her own morals and what she’s willing to compromise them for. She’s one of the more interesting female characters I’ve read in a while.

The book is startlingly creepy and dark at times, but so are a lot of fairy tales, especially original tellings of Grimm and Andersen. And for every adult who screams “but think of the children!” there are 100 kids who want a little more gore in their books, so more power to it.

I read this as a NetGalley, I didn’t have any jacket matter to consult, and I hadn’t read any of the synopses online, so I went into this book completely blind to the concept/plot. I like doing that sometimes, but sometimes that’s also just plain bad for my reading comprehension. I spend too much time trying to get my bearings. There is a reason I always tell my students to read the back of the book and take a picture walk before they read; the more information you have, the better! I think that would have helped me here. Other things that could have helped me: background knowledge of Scandinavian folklore. It took me a little while to settle into this book, but once I did, and how that I’ve had a few days to think about it, I’m solidly pro-West of the Moon.

Newbery 2015 Prospects? Outside chance. Preus’s previous novel, Heart of the Samurai, won the Honor in 2011, so she’s on the radar. BUT the book veers towards the creepy and dark more often that most Newbery titles. I wouldn’t be surprised if this got Preus another Honors nod, but I’d be very surprised if this took the top award for 2015.

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