Margi Preus was reading her great-great-grandmother’s diary when she found two sentences that sparked enough curiosity in her that she built a novel around them.
According to the journal, Linka Preus had met a young farm girl while traveling by boat from Norway to America in the mid-1800s.
“I said I knew she was alone and didn’t have anyone to support her, and if I could do her a favor by engaging her, then I would do it,” Linka wrote. So she and her husband, a pastor, took the girl in as a maid.
But who was this girl? What was her life like before she set sail on the Columbus, Margi Preus wondered.
“How does a girl get on a boat by herself to go to a place where she doesn’t know the language?” Preus said. “It seemed like such an amazingly brave - or maybe desperate - thing to do.”
“West of the Moon,” is Preus’s fictionalized account of the 13-year-old’s life in Norway and the circumstances that led her to the ship. The novel for young readers is a Norwegian folk-American immigration adventure tale and it was published earlier this month by Amulet/Abrams.
Preus’s local book launch is at 5 p.m. today at Midi Restaurant.
“West of the Moon”
When “West of the Moon” opens, Astri is sold by her aunt to a hunched-back man with a goatish beard in exchange for two coins and a haunch.
Astri’s mother is dead and her father is in America. This sale means severing another familial tie: parting ways with her little sister.
Astri’s new life on the farm involves constant chores and the treat of ending up married to this abusive man.
Astri hears about a ship headed for America and she plots her escape. Along the way there will be a friendship with a misshapen yarn-spinner, bloodshed and lockjaw, crisis of conscience, a halling dance, a deal with the devil and a Scandinavian-brand of flirtation.
Preus blends realism with a handful of folk tales and dream sequences for a story with more fantasy than her previous novels.
She said she grew up hearing Norwegian folk tales and they popped into her mind as she was writing.
“In the same way those fairy tales guided Astri, they really kind of guided me through the writing of the story,” she said. “There was the guiding story, ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’ that was kind of at the bedrock of where I was coming from and foremost in Astri’s mind as she thought of her own life.
“I think that story really helped me to give structure and an impulse and trajectory to her story.”
“West of the Moon” called for more inventing than her other books, Preus said.
“Heart of the Samurai,” a Newbery Honor Book, is based on the true story of Manjiro Nakahama, a Japanese teenager who survives a shipwreck and ends up in America. Later, he is instrumental in opening Japan’s borders to Western nations. “Shadow on the Mountain” is a fictionalized account of a Norwegian boy’s involvement with the resistance movement in Norway during the Nazi’s occupation.
“With this story, I didn’t know anything about the real Margit (Astri) and I knew I was going to make it all up,” she said. “It was a really different experience for me. I didn’t have that structure. In that sense, the folk tales really helped.
“West of the Moon” has gotten starred reviews from both Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly, trade publications of the book industry. Kirkus called it a “lively, fantastical adventure and moving coming-of-age story.”
The real girl
Sue Erickson has just two pictures of her great-great-grandmother looking very stern.
She knows few details about Margit Braeketto, but through genealogical research found that her great-great-grandmother was sponsored by the Preus family that settled in Wisconsin.
(The Preus family is easy Googling, as they were instrumental in starting the Lutheran church in America).
Erickson read “Linka’s Diary: A Norwegian Immigrant Story” - the same one that inspired Margi Preus - and found her relative was a maid for the family.
“I was always curious about whether that was true,” Erickson said.
“To read about her being a little girl was interesting,” she said. “It brought so much to the story.”
This past weekend, Erickson conducted another online search for Margit and found Margi Preus’s website - and information about “West of the Moon,” which was inspired by questions surrounding her great-great-grandmother.
“I thought, ‘This is just fantastic.’ It just keeps getting bigger and bigger,” Erickson said.
Erickson of Eden Prairie, Minn., met Preus the next day at a book event in the Twin Cities. She shares the same curiosity about her great-great-grandmother that led Preus to write the book.
“I have often thought to myself, ‘Why did she come here by herself?’ I’m still trying to find that out,” she said.
Erickson knows the account is fictionalized, but said she’s eager to read the novel and pass it on to cousins.
As for the coincidence of meeting a member of the Preus family in this way:
“It’s the Internet, it happens,” Erickson said.
Go see it
What: “West of the Moon” by Margi Preus book launch
When: 5 p.m. today
Where: Midi Restaurant, Fitger’s, 600 E. Superior St.