Title: A Northern Light
Author: Jennifer Donnelly
Review: This book has been on my to-read list for a long time, but other time-sensitive novels kept getting in the way. It was finally nominated as a group read in one of my Goodreads groups, which gave me a good reason to pick it up. Now that I've read it, I'm upset that it took me this long, but I understand why.
In young adult literature, books with danger and excitement around every turn are popular, as authors find it harder and harder to capture the attention of the younger generations for more than a few pages without some bloodsucking or fight scene. There are a lot of great YA books in this category, don't get me wrong, but this is not that type of novel, which is probably why it tends to fly under the radar for so long.
A Northern Light is a beautiful coming of age story of sixteen year old Mattie Gokey, a farmer's daughter who loves to write sad but true stories about the people around her in the historical year of 1906. The death of her mother and her older brother's abandoning of the family leaves her in charge of the household, to take care of younger sisters as well as her working father. Her secrets are the books her teacher sneaks her of women writers, and she wants to go to college and be one of them. But she has to decide between abandoning her family like her brother and going to college in New York to write, or choosing love and marrying the beautiful farm-smart country boy who is sweet on her. The book skips back and forth between the summer, when she's working at a nearby hotel and is asked to burn a pack of letters from one of the guests who later turns up dead, and the story of her past.
One might think that last line about the murdered hotel guest would be the main plot of the book, but it really wasn't. In fact, it was my least favorite part. I wanted to keep reading about Mattie's life and the decisions she was making about school and love, not about the dead woman who was supposed to bring some excitement to the plot. The book didn't need it. Mattie's story is complex and thoughtful enough to hold everything together, and while the death brings some intrigue and perspective, it's not really part of story. I wish the author could have written the book without that device, but I understand that it's a difficult market to sell without a reason to pick up the book in the first place.
The only drawback to the book was that it was sometimes confusing when it bounced around in time, and I wasn't always sure when I was. And the ending was a little bumpy as well, not as strong as the rest of the book, but the rest was so good that I'm very willing to give it some leeway.
As an adult, I very much enjoyed this book, but I think that young girls especially should read and take example from it. The situations Mattie finds herself in and the decisions she makes, though more than a century ago, are not so different from today's world, and are very realistic in their evolutions. It's definitely one I'd want my daughter to read.
Thanks go to M. J. Corley for this fabulous review.
Publisher: Published September 1st 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Quick Review: 5 Stars out of 5.
Why Did I read this Book: A group read book.
Where Did I Get the Book: The local library.
Synopsis: Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey has big dreams but little hope of seeing them come true. Desperate for money, she takes a job at the Glenmore, where hotel guest Grace Brown entrusts her with the task of burning a secret bundle of letters. But when Grace's drowned body is fished from the lake, Mattie discovers that the letters could reveal the grim truth behind a murder. Set in 1906 against the backdrop of the murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, Jennifer Donnelly's astonishing debut novel effortlessly weaves romance, history, and a murder mystery into something moving, and real, and wholly original. Includes a reader's guide and an interview with the author.
Author Biography: Jennifer Donnelly was born in 1963 in Port Chester, New York. She spent some of her childhood in Lewis County, New York, just about an hour from Big Moose Lake, the setting of her novel, A Northern Light. Her paternal grandfather immigrated to upstate New York during the Irish potato famine and struggled to support his family by farming. Because of the harsh land and the short growing season, the family was poor, very much as Donnelly imagines the Gokey family in A Northern Light. In these trying circumstances, the family's chief means of entertainment was storytelling.