There were times while I was writing WEST OF THE MOON, or more accurately, researching it, when I felt as if I was walking through fairytale forests. In the first, the leaves are all made of silver, in the next, they’re made of gold and in the third the leaves are made of pure diamonds. Like the fairy tale character, I really had no idea of the places I would go or the things I would learn and discover on my journey to write this story.
The journey started, as they often do, with a little pestering. Some of my relatives seemed to think that the diary of our mutual ancestor—my great-great grandmother Linka Preus who emigrated from Norway to America in the 1850’s—would make a good novel. Her diary has been published twice, in two separate translations, and it is an interesting story. But not that interesting. Not interesting enough to make a novel, in my opinion, without adding in some high-speed horse and buggy chases, shipboard mutinies, or something.
Dutifully reading her diary anyway, I came across one tantalizing paragraph that clung to my cerebral cortex like an invasive vine. Linka is newly wed and on board a sailing ship bound for America when she writes, “I went back downstairs again, bringing with me a pretty farmer girl, Margit, whom Herman and I had thought about taking as our maid . . . I said that I knew she was alone and that she did not have anyone to support her, and if I could do her a favor by engaging her, then I would do it.”
Hold the phone. Did she say, “I knew she was alone and did not have anyone to support her?” What kind of crazy—or desperate—girl would travel all by herself to a country where she knew no one, probably didn’t speak the language, and had no prospects?
Here was a story, it seemed to me, even if I had to make it all up. Which, for lack of any further explanation in the diary, I began to do. Like my protagonist, Astri, I set off for parts unknown. And, like the fairy tale heroines who are given golden apples or magic tablecloths, I was given many helpful gifts along the way. Not surprisingly, most of these gifts came from women.
First, from my great-great grandmother came this gift of a diary, which provided a helpful record of life on board an immigrant ship, not to mention a ready-made secondary character in the form of the parson’s wife, with dialog straight from the diary.
Traveling on, I stumbled onto Kathleen Stokker’s REMEDIES AND RITUALS: Folk Medicine in Norway and the New Land, which introduced me to the murky 19th century world of religion mixed with superstition, as well as to the BLACK BOOK, a slightly scary book of cures, spells, and curses that was used in Norway by kloke koner (wise women) healers from the 1600’s into the early 20th century. These books took me down paths I would never have envisioned at the start.
And finally, there were the folk and fairytales that so influence Astri and her story. These were stories I knew from childhood when my father would read from an old collection by Asbjørnsen and Moe, translating as he went along. I have my father to thank for telling them to me, but I have to thank the old Norwegian storytellers, who I am pretty sure were women, for telling them in the first place.
Like Astri, the girls in these fairytales do a lot of the rescuing. One girl travels three days past the end of the world to save the prince, another weaves a dozen shirts and ties out of thistledown to save her brothers. Or, if the girl is the one who has been captured by trolls, she calmly sits and scratches the many heads of her captor until such time as a ragamuffin lad shows up to rescue her. Even then, the girl facilitates the process, giving the rescuer detailed instructions to “take a draught from the troll’s drinking flask” before wielding the sword that will cut off his heads.
Apparently it wasn’t just fairytale girls who were so clever and independently minded in Norway. My own great-great grandmamma, on the eve of her wedding in 1851, wrote, “How could I ever forget thee, Independence, whom I so dearly love! Yet this evening I shall take leave of thee. That a spark of affection for thee will always smolder within my heart, I have no doubt. . . I am too stubborn to agree that the maiden shall give no thought to Independence. A human being is a free and independent creature, and I would recommend that every woman consider this, and I insist that every maiden owes it to herself to do so . . . Rarely will it be to her disadvantage if she combines it with determination and self-confidence.”
In reading the letters and diaries of other Norwegian immigrant women, who in the 19th century were second class citizens like women in most other places, I noticed this same kind of determination and independence. Where did these attitudes come from? Did the tales they heard as girls have anything to do with it?
I picture an old crone sitting by the fire on a cold winter’s night back in the old country. She is spinning stories to the young dairymaids clustered around her, telling them stories of girls who are independent, determined and self-confident. And in telling these stories, she encourages these attributes in the girls themselves. Perhaps they will grow up to become girls who rescue, if not princes, then their own selves. Perhaps they will be the very girls who, in order to fulfill their destinies, pluck up their courage and set off for faraway places, far off across oceans, even to places that lie east of the sun and west of the moon.
A few of the stories that the old crone might have been telling:
East of the Sun and West of the Moon
White Bear King Valemon
The Golden Castle that Hung in the Air
The Three Princesses in the Mountain in Blue
Soria Moria Castle
The Twelve Wild Ducks
The Squire’s Bride
The Three Aunts
Margi Preus has written many popular plays, picture books, and novels for young readers. She has traveled the globe to research her novels and, along the way, has made friends in Japan, Norway, and many other places. She lives in Duluth, Minnesota. Visit her online at margipreus.com.