Author: Margi Preus
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: August 2015
In mid-nineteenth century Norway, a peasant girl’s mother is dead and her father has traveled to America with hopes of sending money back home. The girl, Astri, is sold by her aunt to the cruel Svaalberd, the “goatman.” To survive the ordeal, Astri replays her favorite fairy tales in her head, drawing parallels between the wondrous lands in her mind and her own dismal path.
Drawing on research of the time and place, author Margi Preus weaves childlike wonder with harsh realities in this story of a girl struggling to escape her fate. The narrator is stubborn yet open-minded, clever yet foolish. She experiences time and again the disappointment that her personal story does not fit her myths, and slowly collects her own nuggets of wisdom, like “It seems we have to be tossed every which way by each of the winds except the one we need.”
Parts of the narrative bleed into the fantastical, in a way that truly enhances the story. It’s a unique experiment in getting inside the head of a superstitious people, when fact and fiction were not so cleanly divided as they are for us today. Astri deals with abuse, disease, and death, and the tone handles these gracefully. A young reader could appreciate much of the adventure, while a teen or adult would see deeper reaches.
My favorite passage is one when Astri comes to terms with her situation and her own capabilities:
Soon I’ve run out of golden thread with which to spin my pretty stories and I’m left with just this thin thread of truth. And that wiry, rough little thread tells me that if anyone is going to do any rescuing from this place, it’s going to have to be me.
At the end of the book Preus has included clarifying statements about some of the plot devices, explaining the modern terms for ailments that her characters didn’t have the right words for, or giving background to the spells and charms that they believed in. This is an excellent addendum to an already solid book, offering even more layers to the text. The book feels both modern and ancient, and helps the reader experience a life far outside, yet connected to, his or her own.