A Northern Light
By Jennifer Donnelly
I mentioned in a previous post that I received a recommendation to read this book from a bookseller at a local used bookstore. When I got home that evening to request the book from my local library, I noticed that it was already on my “to read” list. I just hadn’t read it yet. The bookseller at the bookstore absolutely gushed over this book just telling me about it. She was so moved by it, I knew I needed to read it.
The story is set in the Adirondack Mountains in New York. It is set around the murder of Grace Brown, a well-known murder that took place in the early 1900s. It was also this same murder that inspired An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser—a book I loved in college.
Even though the book is set around this infamous murder, the story is really about Mattie Gokey, a young girl who is raising her younger siblings because her mother has died and her father is emotionally unattached to the family.
What endears the reader to Mattie is that she manages to carry the weight of the family on her shoulders at such a young age, but she also manages to be an excellent student and a promising writer. She excels in her exams in school and has the opportunity to go to college—something her father will not hear of.
In the midst of it all, she falls in love with a childhood friend, and is engaged to be married. As time goes on, she is not sure that she wants to be a wife, mother, and homemaker if it means she will not be able to pursue her dream of being a writer.
Mattie’s love of words and writing are a beautiful thread throughout the whole book. Donnelly titles the chapters with Mattie’s Words of the Day. Mattie looks up obscure words in the dictionary, memorizes their meanings, and then tries to use them in context during the course of the day. We learn her love of language, her love of writing, and her desire to get out of the life she is living.
Mattie eventually goes to work at the Glenmore, a hotel that is the place that Grace Brown and Chester Gillette are staying. There she learns Grace’s story, and begins to have the courage to pursue her dream of being a writer.
Donnelly makes Mattie's struggle honest. She struggles with trying to honor her mother's dying wish--to take care of her siblings. She wants to pursue her dream, but she is also in love, and she knows that once she marries that she'll no longer live her own life. Her struggles are real, and the decisions she makes do not come easy.
I agree wholeheartedly the enthusiasm with which this book was recommended to me. This story will stay with me for a long time.
Awards it has won:
Los Angeles Times Book Prize
Borders Original Voices Award