Goodreads: West of the Moon
Thirteen-year-old Astri and her younger sister Greta live with their aunt in Norway, now that their father has gone to America to seek his fortune. The girls still believe he will send for them–until the day their aunt sells Astri to be a servant to the goatman. Alone and abused, Astri determines to escape. She will rescue her sister and the two of them will find their way east of the sun, west of the moon until they finally find a place they can call home.
West of the Moon is an enchanting tale that merges fantasy and folklore with the everyday, creating a dreamlike atmosphere that will have readers convinced that magic must happen at any second. Only halfway through the tale did I realize this is a historical fiction, one that will require the heroines to succeed on their own and only after pain and sacrifice. If there is any magic here, it is not in the dark forest or in a book of spells, but in the words that Astri weaves to make her life bearable.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of West of the Moon is not in the commonplace that stories set us free (though Margi Preus certainly illustrates that theme in a remarkably original and captivating way), but in the more subtle suggestion that words also have the power to destroy. Astri tells stories because it comforts her to find parallels between her hard life and with the lives of folklore heroines–the heroines of these stories, she knows, always achieve a happy ending. However, these stories do not affect only her. They do not merely provide her comfort on dark, cold nights. Instead, Astri allows these stories to take on lives of their own, guiding her actions and justifying them–even when those actions would normally be considered immoral.
Astri’s conviction that she does live in a fairy story enables her to adopt fairy tale logic, meaning that for her it is justifiable to hurt the evil, to steal for a good cause, and to tell a lie to achieve one’s goals. Such actions are not wrong in her world, but even laudable. After all, should not the heroine prove herself clever by outwitting a greedy fool? Is it really stealing if one is taking what someone else stole first? Why should she stop to help others if that would slow her on her noble quest? Suddenly, the story takes a very dark turn and Astri is plunging herself into an ever deeper hole of deception and even crime. She tells herself to stop and sometimes feels guilt when she looks at her innocent younger sister, but her need to find a way to America overshadows everything else in her mind, until at last she seems to silence her conscience completely.
Unfortunately, Astri’s decisions to lie, cheat, trick, and stab her way to America are never fully addressed–not in any way that definitely passes moral judgment on them. Her machinations are generally successful, leading to no bad ends and never even inconveniencing her in any meaningful sense. Astri simply has no reason to do well by others in a world that seems to reward bad behavior and punish good. A vague resolve toward toward the end of the book to use her talents for good and a sadness that she accidentally hurt someone she should have loved hardly redeem either Astri or the plot.
The confused message of the story, which seems to justify an attitude of “the ends justify the means” even while it has its protagonist reflect on the harm she has caused while following that mantra ironically seems to stem from a hesitance to face darkness head on. This is in a book that has a young girl sold to an older man who abuses her and attempts to force himself on her, depicts the severing of body parts, tells of parents abandoning their unwanted infants in the woods, and refers repeatedly to evil forces and spells. But though these things are depicted, referenced, or implied, the story never allows readers really to see them. It is as though, if the plot stopped too long, the full horror would become overwhelming and this would no longer be a historical fairy tale of sorts but a realistic fiction. To do that would be to acknowledge that what is happening is not bad, but really, horribly, truly bad–and might be happening now, in our world. So the story keeps glancing aside, saying, yes, that was awful but if we look at it we will never get on. And we must get on because that’s all there is. A tragic propulsion forward to something we can only hope is better than this.
West of the Moon is a beautiful story, one that is sure to captivate readers with its own spell of words and one sure to resonate with its audience as it depicts the power of narrative. And yet, even as I admit that it cast a spell on me, I cannot help but wish it had taken time to linger, to look its ugly parts head-on, not just describing the blood but addressing the moral dimension. It is a story that begs to be about forgiveness, yet never gives the protagonist the ability to forgive herself.