Review: A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

Title: A Northern Light
Author: Jennifer Donnelly
Genre: YA Fiction
ISBN: 0-15-216705-6
Published: 2003, Harcourt Books

a northern light

Main Characters: Mattie, her family, Weaver, Miss Wilcox, Royal Loomis

Synopsis: Mattie is a young woman on the cusp of adulthood, trapped in 1906. She loves school and tries to spend all her free time reading– not that she has much; now that her mother has died and her brother has run away, her Pa needs her to help run the farm. But Mattie has big dreams. Big dreams that will cost a lot of money to make happen. She has to decide if she wants to marry the handsome local boy and be a farm wife forever, or to break her promises and make a break for the Big Apple. A story told in two timelines that meet up at the end, Mattie makes her choice and solves a murder mystery in the process.

Memorable Quotes:

  • “As I tried to figure out what I could say– to find words that weren’t a lie but weren’t quite the truth, either– I thought that madness isn’t like it is in books. It isn’t Miss Havisham sitting in the ruins of her mansion, all vicious and majestic. And it isn’t like in Jane Eyre, either, with Rochester’s wife banging around in the attic, shrieking and carrying on and frightening the help. When your mind goes, it’s not castles and cobwebs and silver candelabra. It’s dirty sheets and sour milk and dog shit on the floor. It’s Emmie cowering under her bed, crying and singing while her kids try to make soup from seed potatoes.” (p. 17)
  • “I stared into my teacup, wondering what it was like to have what Minnie had. To have somebody love you like Jim loved her. To have two tiny new lives in your care. … I wondered if all those things were the best things to have or if it was better to have words and stories. Miss Wilcox had books but no family. Minnie had a family now, but those babies would keep her from reading for a good long time. Some people, like my aunt Josie and Alvah Dunning the hermit, had neither love nor books. Nobody I knew had both.” (p. 96-97)
  • “I thought some lemon drops would be just the thing to cheer Abby up. It would be a furtive purchase, as I really should have given the money to Pa, but after he’d hit me, I decided I wouldn’t. Furtive, my word of the day, means doing something in a stealthy way, being sly or surreptitious. Sneaky would be another way of putting it. I did not wish to become a sneak, but sometimes one had no choice. Especially when one was a girl and craved something sweet but couldn’t say why, and had to wait till no one was looking to wash a bucket of bloody rags, and had to say she was ‘under the weather’ when really she had cramps that could knock a moose over, and had to listen to herself be called ‘moody’ and ‘weepy’ and ‘difficult’ when really she was just fed up with sore bosoms and stained drawers and the fact that she couldn’t just live life in the open, swaggering and spitting and pissing up trees like a boy.” (p. 161)

Review: Spoilers ahead! I adored this book. It took a bit of getting used to, simply because of the time period, and the way the timelines were split, but after a chapter or two it was easy to discern what was going on. I love Mattie’s use of words and the games she plays with Weaver. Weaver’s character was fantastic. He’s black child growing up in 1906 whose mother saves every penny he owns to send him to college, and he works his bum off to get into college and dreams of becoming a lawyer. Mattie can see his future plain as day and knows he’ll be brilliant in everything he achieves. Of her own future, though, she isn’t so sure. Sometimes things really are too good to be true, and Mattie’s coming to terms with that is one of the hardest parts of the book to stomach. Because although Mattie can’t see it coming, the reader sure can.

I loved the separate timeline bit, although like I said, it took a bit of getting used to. I’m still not sure if it was past/present or present/future, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter since they meet up toward the end anyway. Mattie is handed a bundle of letters and told to burn them by a young woman who turns up dead in the lake the same night. Curiosity outweighs her desire to keep her promise, and she reads them. The author’s note at the end says that all the letters are real; it’s an interesting case that became one of New York’s most famous murder mysteries. Obviously, the author took a bit of creative license with the circumstances considering Mattie is fictional, but the rest is true. (If you’re curious, here’s the Wikipedia page.)

Anyway, Mattie learns that you really do have to follow your heart, even when it takes a while to learn that it isn’t a) pointing at the handsome boy who’s asked her to marry him or b) keeping the promise you made to your mother on her deathbed when she asked you to take care of the family. She has to live her own life, and thank heavens she does.

Beautifully written with a colorful cast of characters; I didn’t mention all of them but the twist with the English teacher is a lovely touch, and greatly inspiring. The secondhand learning of all these famous authors via Mattie was good for me as well. She talks of her love for Emily Dickinson, how she didn’t hide the truths of the world for you, she wasn’t afraid of death or loss or heartbreak. That’s the kind of writer Mattie longs to be, because her life isn’t perfect and she can’t imagine lying to the world.

Rating: ★★★★


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