<blockquote>”Astri!” Aunt yells up the stairs. “Don’t dawdle!”
I kiss the top of Greta’s head and place my hand on her face for just a moment—all I dare, or risk a broken heart.
Down the ladder I go to stand by the door, my bundle under my arm. I can’t help but notice there are now two shiny coins glinting on the table, along with a large, lumpy package. My cousins are eyeing the coins with the same intensity that the dog is sniffing the package. Now I know how much I’m worth: not as much as Jesus, who I’m told was sold for thirty pieces of silver. I am worth two silver coins and a haunch of goat.
Uncle comes and tucks a wisp of hair behind my ear, almost tenderly. “I’m sorry Astri,” he says. “It can’t be helped.”
That’s all there is for a good-bye, and then out the door I go. (6-7) </blockquote>
Thirteen-year-old Astri is sold by her aunt to the humped-back, filthy, ill-mannered and equally ill-tempered goat herder. Astri is intent on getting back to her aunt’s house, not out of kindness or love of her aunt, but concern for her little sister Greta who is still there. Her escape plan involves getting on a ship bound for America and meeting up with her father, who left some time ago and she hasn’t heard from since. In their escape attempt over the Norwegian mountains, they pick up among other things a book of dark magic and a silent Spinning Girl, blurring the lines of reality and fairy tale in the process.
Inspired by an entry in an ancestor’s diary, Margi Preus builds an entire story around farmer girl Astri. Karen Cushman said it best in her back cover blurb when she describes it as “an astounding blend of fiction and folklore that celebrates the important things in life—loyalty, devotion, courage, and the magic of stories.” Elizabeth Bird’s review is also extremely coherent and cohesive, probably much more so than mine ever could be.
It’s the blending that of fiction and folklore that Cushman mentions that is done so seamlessly and that captures the imagination, making you wonder if the collection of coins is really a troll’s stolen treasure, or if the hairbrush really is magic or just a clever con. I’m reminded of the movie Big Fish or Oh Brother Where Art Thou, to give a comparison of how effortless the stories within the story, featuring giant bears and magic and hope, meld and shift within the book’s central plot of Astri’s more realistic and painfully brutal world of childhood brides (and all that implies/entails), running away to an unknown country, and discovering that money doesn’t ever buy as much as you need or want. Do the spells and prayers work to keep the rain and Death away, or was it just time that was finally allowed to work a magic of its own? The world Astri lives in is interchangeable with the fairy tales, just as the beliefs are interchangeable between the “old ways” of keeping a rowan twig in your pocket for protection and quoting the Bible. Maybe that fluidity between customs and beliefs makes the fantastical elements of the story all the more believable, even if they can be easily explained as unremarkable. Readers will recognize at least some of the mixed-up fairy tales Astri mentions and makes her own, like Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin, the Three Billy Goats Gruff, and the seven-league boots, and may be intrigued by mentions of the lesser known ones to seek out the rest, which Preus helpfully provides in her Author’s Note.
Overall, Astri and Greta’s journey is somewhat fantastical, when you think of all they are able to accomplish, especially by themselves. Readers find themselves just as conflicted as the two girls when they are forced to steal their way to their destination. There is no ambiguity that what they are doing is wrong, as Astri identifies herself as a thief and a liar and a host of other things. However, there is some ambiguity in if these acts are ever justified, and what punishment will befall upon you if you are the only one who knows how much of your “sinning nature” you are responsible for. When she makes a slightly fantastical promise, she wholeheartedly believes that if she finishes her part of the deal, the other half will follow. (I don’t want to give too much away by saying what or who the deal involved, because it happens towards the end of the novel.)
It all ends happily for the girls, but just like in fairy tales you are left wondering about the minor characters briefly mentioned but never seen again after the “happily ever after”. Hopefully neither girl will lose that ability to see the magic in the world while keeping the street smarts they seemed to have gained through their Cinderella-like upbringing.