A Northern Light
The combination of cheap and “sounds intriguing” has lured me into buying many a book. And since I’m fairly dangerous in used bookstores, I have a massive TBR pile. So, when prompted to pick out a book by a new-to-me author, my dilemma was something along the lines of which new-to-me author to liberate from the stack. I’ve heard good things about Jennifer Donnelly’s books over the years. I wasn’t quite in the mood to tackle a giant doorstopper of a book this month, so I skipped over The Tea Rose and picked up her 2003 young adult novel, A Northern Light, instead.
From the cover blurb, I was uncertain whether to expect YA romance or historical fiction. I think this haunting coming-of-age novel is more properly classified as historical fiction and while I did find it hard reading at times, I loved the story. Set in the Adirondacks in 1906, this story is set against a famous real-life murder which also formed the backdrop for Theodore Dreiser’s classic novel, An American Tragedy.
The heroine, Mattie Gokey, works as a maid at the Glenmore, a resort at Big Moose Lake. Hotel guest Grace Brown asked Mattie to burn a packet of letters, but when Brown is later found drowned in the lake, Mattie cannot bring herself to destroy the letters. As Mattie deals with her feelings about Grace’s drowning and she begins to read the letters, we start to see Mattie’s recent life through flashbacks. Not surprisingly, Grace’s life and dreams and all of the dreams Mattie has for her own life start to mix together in Mattie’s mind and before long, she has some major decisions to make.
When I said before that this book could be hard to read, I do not allude to graphic content so much as the pervasive claustrophobia that set in as I read this story. Mattie is obviously very intelligent and not only that, she has both a respect and hunger for learning. With a teacher determined to help her find a place in a women’s college, Mattie chases after learning with a devotion many modern students likely would not recognize. However, as the eldest daughter of a widowed farmer who just barely scrapes by, Mattie’s world is constricted.
Not only must Mattie care for her numerous younger siblings, but she also takes on the lion’s share of running the house. The brother closest in age to Mattie ran off after an altercation with their father, so there is no one left to help with much of the farmwork as well. Mattie’s father still grieves the loss of his wife and often expresses his emotions in bursts of temper which seem particularly harsh now that the farm isn’t doing well. School and learning are the main bright lights in Mattie’s life, but in rural upstate New York, she does not seem to have many opportunities aside from hard work and scarce resources.
The story grows more interesting as Mattie has two paths open before her. On the one hand, the son of a neighboring farmer seems interested in her. While her future might be at least a little more secure than what she faces at home and she would have the love of her family, Royal Loomis still represents a life of hard work and few chances to expand her mind. On the other hand, Mattie just might have a chance to go to New York City and attend college. This is a choice that opens the world the Mattie but getting her father’s consent – or the support of just about anyone close to her – may prove almost impossible.
One of the things that makes this story so compelling is that Donnelly explores each of Mattie’s options. Neither seems like a sure thing early on in the story, and Mattie really does have to do some soul-searching to figure out who she is and what is important to her. The juxtaposition of that journey against the fate of Grace Brown losing her life just as she seemed to be on the edge of realizing her dreams gives this book more than average depth.
The ending of the book seemed to wrap things up just a bit too quickly and felt just a bit too pat. But only just a bit. Overall I still greatly enjoyed this novel and would definitely recommend it.