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'A Northern Light'     Send a link to a friend

[JAN. 28, 2004]  "A Northern Light," by Jennifer Donnelly, Harcourt Inc., 2003, 389 pages

A NORTHERN LIGHT by Jennifer DonnellyReview by Linda Harmon

This coming-of-age novel set in 1906 is based on real events that happened in New York's Adirondack Mountains. A young woman named Grace Brown was mysteriously drowned in Big Moose Lake.

The main character in "A Northern Light" is 16-year-old Mattie Gorkey. She loves words. She loves words so much that she looks up a word every day in the dictionary and attempts to use it in as many ways as possible. She dreams of going to college and becoming a writer. The reality of her life is that before Mattie's mother died, Mattie promised her that she would stay on the farm and help her father and younger siblings. The story is told in a series of flashbacks between Mattie's job as a waitress at one of the lake resorts and her home life.

Surprisingly, Mattie's father allows her to continue her schooling after her mother dies. Miss Wilcox, the local teacher, takes a special interest in Mattie and her best friend, Weaver, who happens to be the first freeborn person in his family. She helps Mattie and Weaver prepare for tests that will allow them to both receive scholarships for college. Miss Wilcox is an intriguing character and supplies a surprising twist to the story. Eventually Mattie's father understands what college means to her and allows her to get a job at the resort to make the money she needs to get to Barnard College in New York.

The body of Grace Brown is discovered in the opening chapter of the book. It is also in this first chapter that we are given a glimpse of what Mattie knows about Grace Brown and the man with whom she was involved. He signed the register at the hotel as Carl Graham, but Mattie knows that his real name is Chester Gillette. She overheard Grace call him Chester, and Mattie has hidden under her mattress a stack of letters addressed to him -- letters that Grace gave her and she promised to burn. As Mattie begins to read the letters she realizes they hold the key to solving Grace's murder, but she can't bring herself to share them, yet.


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To complicate Mattie's life even more than it is, she is courted by the very handsome Royal Loomis, son of a wealthy farmer who owns the land next to her father's. This is a very confusing yet flattering situation for Mattie. Royal wants to marry her and sees no reason for her to go to college. Even though he appears to be very interested in her, what he says and does leaves her questioning his motives for their relationship. In the end, reading Grace's letters helps Mattie realize that she must not feel bound to stay by duty or the pressure of others but must leave for her own happiness.

This story deals with such themes as the loss of a parent, family responsibility, women's rights, racism, sexual awakening, pregnancy, murder, friendship and love. The characters are very believable and the story is well-written. Lovers of historical fiction will truly enjoy this novel. It is recommended for ages 13 and up because of the themes, mild language and sexual situations. This murder was also the inspiration for Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy."

[Linda Harmon, Lincoln Public Library District]

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