A Northern Light
by Jennifer Donnelly
Right now I want a word that describes the feeling that you get – a cold, sick feeling deep down inside – when you know something is happening that will change you, and you don’t want it to, but you can’t stop it. And you know, for the first time, for the very first time, that there will be a before and an after, a was and a will be. And that you will never again be quite the same person that you were.
Farm-girl Mattie Gokey dreams of a life outside of her small farming town – a life in New York City. She has the smarts to get there. A talented writer, she is encouraged by her forward-thinking teacher, Miss Wilcox, to apply to Barnard College. Many obstacles stand in Mattie’s way – her lack of funds, her needy family, and handsome farmer Royal Loomis. Working at a hotel for the summer to earn money for her family, Mattie meets a guest named Grace Brown. Grace gives Mattie a stack of letters that hold terrible secrets – the secrets behind Grace’s eventual drowning. Will Grace’s death finally give Mattie enough courage to take her fate in her hands and to live the life she has always imagined?
In anticipation of Jennifer Donnelly’s new book, Revolution, I decided to read A Northern Light which has been on my book shelf for a year or more. Why did I wait for so long?! This well-researched novel is an absolute literary gem. This book would be perfect for a book discussion group–it is so nuanced that you really need other people to discuss it with to unpack all of the meaning. Unfortunately, I did not read this with a book club so I fear that my review will be woefully inadequate – only scratching the surface of the true power of this book.
I was absolutely blown away by Jennifer Donnelly’s writing. At the beginning of my reviews, I like to provide an excerpt from the novel to provide a hint of what is to come. As I am reading, I dog ear these quotes so I can remember where they are. Normally, I have two or three memorable passages or bits of dialogue to choose from. With this book, I had around twenty. Donnelly’s writing is not only beautiful and poetic but really hits you in the gut. Her words just always seem to be the exact right thing to say. I also loved the distinctive voice that she created for Mattie – a balance of sweet naivete with a desire to question and want to know more about the world.
There is romance in this novel, but unlike most books I read with a romantic element, I was not rooting for the characters together – I was just rooting for Mattie. And that’s how it should be because this story was really about Mattie finding her voice and who she was. I thought it was extremely fitting that this novel weaves in the story of the historical real-life murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser’s American Tragedy. Meeting Grace Brown and reading her letters allows Mattie to see herself in Grace and finally realize what she really knew all along.
The secondary characters are dimensional, complex and added a great deal to the story. My favorites were Miss Wilcox, Mattie’s caring teacher, and Weaver, Mattie’s friend who also had dreams of college. This novel tackled some tough issues. If I were a high school teacher, I would absolutely bring this novel into the classroom. The themes of oppression and freedom played heavily throughout the novel. Challenging social norms and the value of education is also explored, especially through the lives of Mattie, Weaver and Miss Wilcox and the decisions that they make.
This is not an easy or fast read, but this novel is certainly worth your time. A rich story, beautifully-told with characters and a message that will stick with you long after you close the book. I highly recommend A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Age Recommendation: 15 and up