Review: A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

2

January 27, 2012 by Heidi

Book cover of A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
Title: A Northern Light [Amazon|GoodReads]
Author: Jennifer Donnelly [Website|Twitter]
Standing: Stand alone novel.
Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction
Published: September 1st, 2004 by Harcourt Paperbacks
Format: Paperback; 396 pages.  
Source: Borrowed from my local library.Mattie Gokey is a young woman living in the North Woods of northern New York state in 1906.  She is trapped between two worlds, the one she desires and the one she feels she cannot escape.  Mattie and her friend Weaver are fortunate, intelligent, and hard working enough to receive high school diplomas and be accepted into universities in New York City, but it will cost money and more to attend.  Mattie is a lover of books and words, but also feels the strong weight of duty and the possibility of love keeping her home.  When a woman drowns at the hotel where she works, Mattie finds horror, solace, and hope in the letters Grace Brown has left behind.

A Norhtern Light is set against the backdrop of the historically true murder of Grace Brown in 1906, the same murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.  Jennifer Donnelly found the letters left behind to be incredibly moving, and allowed this emotion to drive the story of Mattie.  Mattie is a young woman that I believe any girl who loves books would strongly identify with.  She has a passion for the written word in a time when this disposition could be detrimental to one’s social standing and prospects in life.  I wasn’t sure how I was going to get into the story at first, but it hit me about 30 pages in that she reminded me somewhat of Jo March, and from there my heart was sold.  Mattie loves to read, and desires to become a writer, but unlike Jo she does not have the support of her own family let alone nearly anyone else around her.  She is constantly dredging up feelings of anger and desperation at the fact that books are not like reality; Mattie is keenly aware of the slim chances of her own happy ending:

I used to wonder what would happen if characters in books could change their fates.  What if the Dashwood sisters had had money?  Maybe Elinor would have gone traveling and left Mr. Ferrars dithering in the drawing room.  What if Catherine Earnshaw had just married Heathcliff to begin with and spared everyone a lot of grief?  What if Hester Prynne and Dimmesdale had gotten onboard that ship and left Roger Chillingworth far behind?  I felt sorry for these characters sometimes, seeing as they couldn’t ever break out of their stories, but then again, if they could have talked to me, they’d likely have told me to stuff all my pity and condescension, for neither could I.

Mattie is obsessed with words and their meanings, picking a new one out of the dictionary each day, learning its meaning and attempting to incorporate it into her vocabulary.  We discover her obsession with this powerful opening:   

Right now I want a word that describes the feeling 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 now be a before and an after, a was and a will be.  And that you will never again be quite the same person you were.
I imagine it’s the feeling Eve had as she bit into the apple.  Or Hamlet when he saw his father’s ghost.  Or Jesus as a boy, right after someone sat him down and told him his pa wasn’t a carpenter after all.

My favorite word throughout the entire book has to be sesquipedalian, which means “given to using long words” and which Mattie accuses of being a hypocrite as it is in and of itself a long word.  She also makes many keen observations as to the reality of books and women at the time–look at the number of female writers at the time who never married, Emily Dickenson (“a damned sneaky genius!”), Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, etc.  Mattie has to make a difficult and heart wrenching choice between words and the future that has been laid out for her.  

After reading little besides sci-fi and fantasy for months, A Northern Light hit me like a breath of fresh air.  I know I have probably made the book sound rather downtrodden and depressing, but I assure you that there is such a strong undercurrent of hope, and Mattie is such a charming character, that you will not find yourself depressed reading it.  In addition, this book made me so incredibly grateful to be a woman in an age where knowledge and love of learning is to be commended, and seeking it in no way bars you from the possibility of a happy family life. Plus, the paperback cover is just gorgeous, I love the colors! I had a choice between the paperback or hardcover and chose this version specifically due to the cover.

My only disappointment with this novel is that I was expecting a bit of mystery, when really there wasn’t one.  It begins with the drowning of Grace Brown, and continues to flash back to Mattie’s past until it slowly catches up to the beginning.  I at times found myself getting a bit impatient for the “present” bits.  There was never really any surprise or mystery or twist with the murder.  Certainly a recommended read, but only for those who know what they’re getting in to!

Likelihood that I’ll be back for more: I don’t read a ton of historical fiction, though I honestly can’t say why as I do enjoy it.  Before The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the last historical fiction I’d read was Pompeii back in 2007.  That said, when I do get around to visiting this genre again, I’ll certainly pick up something else by Jennifer Donnelly, particularly I’m looking forward to reading Revolution.

Recommended for: Fans of historical fiction (particularly U.S. early 1900s), writers, fans of Downton Abby (Mattie’s work in the hotel is somewhat reminiscent of this show to me).

Real life repercussions of reading this book:  Thanks to Mattie, I have a new sound piece of advice on men to add to my father’s “Never trust a man with two middle initials.” and my ex-military-ex-co-worker’s “Never trust a man who wears a thumb ring.” and that is: “One must always steer clear of men who sweat when it isn’t warm.” Sound advice if you ask me.

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2 comments »

  1. Alyssa says:

    This one seems interesting, I really need to read more historical fiction. I love the advice about what types of men you should trust and I think I might have to take some of those to heart. :]

  2. Heidi says:

    It's true! =)This is the only Jennifer Donnelly I've read, but it was beautifully written.

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While the source for each book I review is posted within its review, please assume unless otherwise stated that books reviewed on Bunbury in the Stacks were received free from the author or publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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