A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
Harcourt, 383 pages
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 asks her to burn a bundle of secret letters. But when Grace’s drowned body is fished from the lake, Mattie discovers the letters reveal the grim truth behind a murder.
Set in 1906 against a backdrop of the murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser‘s An American Tragedy, this astonishing novel weaves romance, history, and a murder mystery into something moving, real, and wholly original.
I was never a big fan of historical novels because in my mind, they’re equivalent to classics: slow reading and oftentimes, hard to read. I tend to shy away from any novel set in any part of history that isn’t a classic because…well, classics are classics for a reason that’s why I feel the need to read them. Historicals are just that, and it doesn’t really call my name.
That’s just me being a book snob, excuse me there.
But the good reviews of Jennifer Donnelly’s books got me curious, so I had her books somewhere in my wish list, for possible future acquiring and reading. Fortunately, I didn’t have to buy any because I got her two YA novels as gifts last Christmas. Knowing myself, however, I was kind of sure those books would sit on my TBR pile for a while before I get to go through them. If I wasn’t crazy enough to set a mini-challenge for myself every month, I don’t think I would have picked up and discovered the beauty that is A Northern Light.
Mattie Gokey is working at Glenmore when the body of Grace Brown was found in the river. She remembers Grace very well — after all, she had asked Mattie to burn some letters for her just a few hours before she was found dead. Unable to sleep that night, Mattie decides to read the letters and finds that there was more to Grace Brown’s death than it looks.
At the same time that was happening, another story is told that accounts how Mattie got to the Glenmore in the first place. Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey is a smart young lady who has big dreams of being a writer but is losing hope of them coming true. After their mother died and her older brother ran away, Mattie is left to help manage the Gokey household with her sullen father and three younger sisters. A lover of books and the written word, Mattie dreams of writing her own, too, but poverty, her family and a possible romance all comes to her, forcing her to decide if she should follow her dreams or stay and fulfill her promise to her dead mother.
The summaries I wrote there is not enough to do justice to the beauty of this book. A Northern Light turned out to be an easy read despite it being set in a time so far from what I know. The setting was vivid, and it reminded me of one of my favorite childhood reads, The Nickel-Plated Beauty by Patricia Beatty. I could just imagine the sprawling farm lands, the cows that they need to milk, the hotel, the Gokey home. Adding to the vivid scenery are the wonderfully drawn characters. Mattie’s voice rang clear and true, and all the people around her shone like little stars, too, shedding more light in the mystery and the story. Even the unnamed guests in the hotel felt like real people, and I can almost hear the noise of the guests eating as Mattie and her co-workers in Glenmore rush to and from the kitchen, picking up plates and serving dishes. The writing was simple yet poetic, immediately pulling me in without having to adjust to any odd language. Overall, the book just worked for me and it read almost like a contemporary YA novel, which I really liked.
The best part of the novel, the one that tickled my fancy so much, is the fact that Mattie loved words. My bookish self found a kindred spirit in Mattie and in her fascination with books. It was almost like A Northern Light was also a book for appreciating books and the power of words. I could definitely relate to Mattie in this particular scene when she saw her teacher’s massive library:
What I saw next stopped me dead in my tracks. Books. Not just one or two dozen, but hundreds of them. In crates. In piles on the floor. In bookcases that stretched from floor to ceiling and lined the entire room. I turned around and around in a slow circle, feeling as if I’d just stumbled into Ali Baba’s cave. I was breathless, close to tears, and positively dizzy with greed.
I get the exact same reaction when I’m in a bookstore. ;)
I also always loved those scenes when Mattie and her best friend Weaver would have a word duel, where they’d “shoot” each other with synonyms of a word that they set at the start of the game, and the one who fails to give the answer “dies”. This book gave importance to even the simplest of words, and to further stress that, chapters that narrate Mattie’s past before she got to Glenmore had headings of Mattie’s word of the day that somehow made its way into the story.
A Northern Light is a ultimately a story about following your dreams, but it also gracefully tackles other issues such as sex and racism. Sometime during reading this book, I got the good chills, and that just confirmed that how good this book was. I loved it, and I think people who appreciate the written word would like this book very much, too. I’m still not a big fan of historical fiction, but I will definitely read Jennifer Donnelly’s other books (in fact, I already have Revolution waiting for me). :)
My copy: Christmas gift from Aaron
Cover and Blurb: Goodreads
The Book Smugglers