West of the Moon
There is a myth that spring books don’t win awards, and several theories about the myth…that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy because publishers save their better books for the fall, or is because committee members have time to get disillusioned with early books and don’t with late ones. I find the reverse of the latter however: that the strong spring titles have time to prove their worth, and I find that especially true with WEST OF THE MOON. I’ve read this now three or four times…and am not sure I have much to add beyond my initial appreciations, so as we spend our last week before our in person discussions and voting, I’ll point out why this still remains firmly in my top three.
Like JOEY PIGZA, this book stands out for its deep emotional impact with extraordinary brevity. While Gantos achieved it through a scintillating voice and strongly formed character perspective, Preus achieves it not wasting a single word, by putting us right into the story and relying on the resonance achieved by conflating story styles and memes. The folktale / immigrant-historical-fiction mishmash provides both the interior/emotional coming-of-age and brutally real coming-of-age survival stories in one. She refuses to explain what she trusts readers will find on their own–her writing her is fully respectful of her audience’s abilities, at least on par with REVOLUTION and FAMILY ROMANOV in this respect, if not more so.
This book is written in the present tense, which we had a great discussion on back here. As I re-read through those comments now with my eye particularly to WEST OF THE MOON, I think that this exchange between Sarah and Jonathan about cognitive dissonance gets to what Preus has achieved by using this difficult form to excellent affect. Sarah said,
“Sure, there is absolutely cognitive dissonance. People don’t generally narrate their lives as they happen, and first-person present requires a strange negotiation of the gap between experience and articulation. Both can’t really happen simultaneously….Fiction means using forms that evoke our ways of experiencing the world; it’s not a concrete reflection of reality. I’d say, in fact, that metaphor relies on cognitive dissonance.”
The uneasiness of Astri’s perspective (is she is a fairy tale or not?) is to me what makes this story ultimately distinguished …it could have easily been bland and unremarkable without this dissonance. Is Astri nice? Is she acting morally? What is the difference between moral and right, given a threat? If the threat was only perceived and not real, could you still have been right? It is hard to see, precisely because we are inside Astri’s thoughts as they happen, and as she interprets what she sees and experiences through the various lenses that adults have provided her. Over the course of the story, her lens, and so perspective, becomes more and more her own: this is her coming of age. This sense of self-questioning, world-questioning, and self-discovery is to me so much more powerful here than in, say, REVOLUTION, or pretty much anything I’ve read in a very long time. I think that this year BROWN GIRL DREAMING is the title that comes closest to it, though in a completely different way.
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About Nina Lindsay
Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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