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Jennifer Donnelly’s A Northern Light Shines

April 28, 2010
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A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
published by Harcourt Children’s Books April 1, 2003

Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey is passionate about words. Along with her friend Weaver Smith, son of the only black woman in the area, she studies the meanings of words and wants to earn a high school diploma and attend college in New York City. Mattie hopes to become a writer. But living on a struggling farm in 1906, it is difficult to nurture her dream. Mattie’s French-American father, a former logger forced into a farmer’s life, has been broken by her mother’s recent death and his estrangement from his only son. As the oldest child, Mattie has to help him run the farm and raise her three younger sisters. Although she is encouraged by Weaver and her teacher, Miss Wilcox, Mattie knows her father won’t allow her to leave the farm and attend college. And how can she break the promise she made to her cancer-ridden mother on her deathbed?

In the midst of this, Mattie struggles to find time for her own writing. Despite her passion for literature, she doesn’t identify with the gentrified characters in the works of Jane Austen or Edith Wharton.

“It’s just that there are no Captain Wentworths, are there? But there are plenty of Pap Finns. And things go well for Anne Elliott in the end, but they don’t go well for most people …”

“…People in books are good and noble and unselfish, and people aren’t that way … and I feel, well … hornswoggled sometimes. By Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and Louisa May Alcott. Why do writers make things sugary when life isn’t that way?” I asked too loudly. “Why don’t they tell the truth? Why don’t they tell how a pigpen looks after the sow’s eaten her children? Or how it is for a girl when her baby won’t come out? Or that cancer has a smell to it? All those books … and I bet not one of them will tell you what cancer smells like. I can, though. It stinks. Like meat gone bad and dirty clothes and bog water all mixed together. Why doesn’t anyone tell you that?”

When she catches the eye of handsome Royal Loomis, Mattie’s thoughts turn to love. Although Royal’s attention revolves around crops and livestock rather than words and literature, she feels stirrings of passion. And she doesn’t want to turn away from the possibilities of marriage and motherhood. Is it possible to be a writer and a wife? It seems that it’s never been done.

The summer she turns seventeen, Mattie works at a hotel.  A young woman named Grace Brown drowns under mysterious circumstances. The only clue to what really happened to her lies in a cache of letters Grace gave Mattie. Still aching from the loss of her mother, Mattie grieves for the young woman who can no longer speak for herself. This mystery, based on the real-life case that inspired Theodore Dreiser’s novel, An American Tragedy, helps Mattie find the courage to make some difficult decisions.

Two parallel threads comprise this story. One begins with Mattie’s life on the farm, and the other starts when Grace’s body is discovered, unleashing an investigation. This is an incredibly rich novel. It’s a compelling coming of age story about a gifted young woman struggling to choose between her dream of becoming a writer, her duty to her family, and her desire for love in an era of one-dimensional gender roles. It also explores a spectrum of other issues. It probes into the fate of married women who step outside the bounds of marital expectations. It also explores racism, the Comstock Act, which triggered a flurry of censorship in the early 20th century, and many other issues. And bibliophiles and logophiles will relish Mattie’s love of words and the wealth of literary allusions in this book.

This novel explores a fascinating period of time, an era on the cusp of tremendous change. We see a rural, pioneer-type lifestyle, with horse-drawn wagons  and simple lifestyles, converge with the urban world described by Edith Wharton and Theodore Dreiser, a society that is tipping toward the roaring twenties. Mattie’s family life is deeply rooted in the traditions of the past, and her teacher, Emily Wilcox, gives her a glimpse into the possibilities of the future.

I really enjoyed the period detail, despite a few anachronisms. For example, we see the well-loved “Serenity Prayer”, which probably wasn’t written until the 1930s. The book is a little edgier than some of the literature from which it draws inspiration. The sensibilities of the narrator struck me as somewhat modern. However, this didn’t diminish the novel’s historical accuracy; it fit the theme of living in a world which isn’t always as it’s portrayed in novels and is quickly moving into a future which will bring radical social changes.

In addition to celebrating words and literature and offering rich fodder for discussion about social and historical issues, this novel is a captivating read. I fell in love with many of the characters, especially Mattie and Weaver, and I was sad to say goodbye to them after I closed the book for the last time. Ms. Donnelly, might there be a sequel? 😀 The complexity of the plot, the twists in the story and the vivid dialogue and character development all made this novel, which I think will appeal equally to adult and young adult readers, difficult to put down.

Question: What’s your favorite YA historical fiction?

Note: I borrowed this book from the library, but I plan to buy my own copy. I am eager to discuss this novel with my 15-year-old unschooled daughter, Sarah. I hope to post an outline for our discussion soon; I’d love it if people, of any age, who visit via cyberspace would join us in reading and talking about this book!

Read More Reviews: Bloggin’ bout Books; Reviewer X; Reading Rants!; Fyrefly’s Book Reviews; The Written World; MariReads; Leafing Through Life; Liv’s Book Reviews; What KT Reads

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. April 28, 2010 7:46 pm

    I hope to read more historical fiction in the future. I just finished The Last Summer of The World and I really, really enjoyed it. I think I’ll add this to the list of HF to read. Great review. :]

    • April 28, 2010 11:06 pm

      Robby, I’ve never heard of The Last Summer of the World — I can’t wait to see your review of it.

  2. April 28, 2010 8:07 pm

    I’ve had this on my shelf for almost a year now! It’s really time for me to get to reading it!

    Have you read An American Tragedy? The crime in here is based on the same crime as that book, which is what got me interested in A Northern Light in the first place.

    • April 28, 2010 11:08 pm

      Amanda, I read Dreiser’s My Sister Carrie in college, but I haven’t read An American Tragedy. Now I want to, though.

  3. April 28, 2010 8:32 pm

    I really enjoyed this when I read it, but I really love her adult saga novels. The Tea Rose is great, but The Winter Rose is just fantastic! I can’t wait for her new book to come out later this year, and then hopefully we will get the final book in the Rose trilogy!

  4. April 28, 2010 11:09 pm

    Marg, I definitely have the Rose trilogy in my sights!

  5. April 29, 2010 12:08 am

    Most of the YA fiction I read seems to be contemporary or set in the future, so I probably have relatively few historical references to draw on.

    Two years ago I enjoyed a book about the Chinese Triad in the Australian goldfields.

    It is called Escaping the Triad by Jeremy Gadd.

    I also have very recently enjoyed (as in Tuesday!) How I live now by Meg Rosoff.

    And I have also enjoyed Elizabeth the Gallant by Elinor Brent-Dyer, a girls’ school story author who lived from 1894 to 1968. She came from the North of England.

  6. June 1, 2010 2:33 pm

    I just finished reading this book for the second time and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s very well written and Mattie is a fabulous character. I really liked the way Donnelly took the true life events of teh murder and then spun her tale around them.

    Here’s my review if you’d like to read it: http://www.bluearchipelagoreviews.com/2010/northern-light-jennifer-donnelly/

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