Sunday, April 18, 2010

Review: A Northern Light

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
4 stars

Reasons for reading: I love Donnelly's adult novels; Book about a real person for Four Month Challenge

From School Library Journal: "Mattie Gokey, 16, a talented writer, promised her dying mother that she would always take care of her father and younger siblings. She is stuck on a farm, living in near poverty, with no way of escaping, even though she has been accepted at Barnard College. She promises to marry handsome Royal Loomis even though he doesn't appear to love her. Now, Mattie has promised Grace Brown, a guest at the Adirondack summer resort where she works, to burn two bundles of letters. Then, before she can comply, Grace's body is found in the lake, and the young man who was with her disappears, also presumably drowned. This is a breathtaking tale, complex and often earthy, wrapped around a true story. In 1906, Grace Brown was killed by Chester Gillette because she was poor and pregnant, and he hoped to make his fortune by marrying a rich, society girl. Grace's story weaves its way through Mattie's, staying in the background but providing impetus. The protagonist tells her tale through flashback and time shifts from past to present. Readers feel her fears for her friend Weaver-the first freeborn child in his family-when he is beaten for being black and his college savings are stolen, and enjoy their love of words as they engage in language duels. Finally, they'll experience her awakening when she realizes that she cannot live her life for others."

First line: "When summer comes to the North Woods, time slows down."

My thoughts: At first I thought I wasn't going to like this book, I almost stopped reading it. It seemed so gloomy and I really missed Donnelly's usual setting of late Victorian London. Life is really hard for the people in the tiny logging towns of the Adirondacks at the turn of the century and Donnelly doesn't shy away from it. There's hope at the end of the book, but a lot of sadness along the way. Mattie's mother has just died, her brother has left the farm after a fight with their father leaving her and her 3 youngest sisters to help their desolate, angry father to run the farm. Mattie's friend Weaver (their "word duels" are great fun) loses his temper when he feels he's being treated as inferior, and unjust as it is, this gets him into a lot of trouble. Mattie's best friend barely survives giving birth to twins and then is trapped in a cabin with the babies, housework, and a husband who wants to impregnate her again immediately.

But I kept reading and I'm glad I did. I really liked that it was based on true events but that the centre of the story was Mattie's journey rather than the murder itself. Through letters she gave to Mattie to burn right before her death, the events surrounding the murder are revealed and Grace's tragedy is what ultimately convinces Mattie that she needs to live for herself and not be limited by what her father or her fiance (who is clearly only marrying her for her father's land) think she should be.

Donnelly's notes show that she did a ton of research, which shows and I really liked that she got the details of life both for lumberjacks and for life working in the area's summer hotels from members of her family. She obviously feels a deep connection to the story and it shows.


Julie said...

I enjoyed this book but it still doesn't live up to the Rose series for me. Then again I'm not a real big YA novel reader either.

Glad you liked it.

tinylittlelibrarian said...

Definitely not up to the Rose series, but it was a pretty good read during the ETERNAL wait for the next one! :)

Julie said...

No kidding. I know I'll devour it when it comes out and then go through a withdrawal of the series. LOL