A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

   Review by:  Chris

Title:  A Northern Light

Author:  Jennifer Donnelly

Collection:  Teen Books

In 1906, seventeen year-old Mathilda Gokey, called Mattie or Matt, is working at the Glenmore Hotel in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York when the body of Grace Brown is discovered in the lake near the hotel.  Everyone assumes that Grace and the young man she was with had an accident while boating on the lake, but just before setting out that day, Grace gave Mattie a bundle of letters to destroy.  These letters suggest a different story, and Mattie becomes obsessed with the tragedy and the perspective it lends to her own life choices.  Alternating chapters flash back to the year before Grace’s death and reveal Mattie’s life as the oldest daughter of a struggling “North Woods” farmer.  Mattie aspires to be a writer and has earned a full scholarship to Barnard College in New York City, but at the time of Grace Brown’s death, she has given up those dreams in order to get married and fulfill family obligations.  Now she begins to question whether she has made the right decisions.

The real-life death of Grace Brown and the subsequent trial and conviction of Chester Gillette for her murder form a backdrop to Mattie’s fictional story that will appeal to adults as well as teens.  In addition, the portrayal of life in the “north woods” during the turn of the twentieth century will appeal to people who enjoy tales of frontier life.  But the real power of the novel is Mattie herself.  Donnelly has created a character and a narrator who deals with difficult realities with the depth and nuance that they deserve.  Mattie, and consequently the whole novel, faces the challenge of seeking her own identity in a society that views women as only caregivers.  Grace Brown makes the ultimate sacrifice to the ambitions of her lover, but there are many other role models for Mattie to examine.  The novel’s tone is reflective and intelligent, making it a good choice for adult readers who like character-driven literary fiction or historical fiction.

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