Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey is trapped by promises she’s made to the dead. A vow at her mother’s deathbed lock her into the responsibility of taking care of her large family. Shortly after, her older brother inexplicably runs away and her pa can’t go on his logging job, thus placing the family in a financial strain. Pa is distant, things are bleak, and the future Mattie was hoping for at Barnard College quickly evaporates into thin air when she slowly realizes how dire the situation is. It’s 1906, they’re poor, and there’s no one to help them.

Fate would have it, however, that her father would need her to take a job six miles away from home, at Glenmore, a resort/hotel. There she comes face to face with her second promise she’s to make to the deceased: a guest, Grace Brown, hands her a stack of letters and makes her swear to burn them--and then turns up dead in a boating accident and her fiancé is nowhere to be found. Mattie is spooked, and she reads the letters…and finds out there’s more to Grace’s life and death than just that and that there might be more to her--Mattie’s--life, too.voice. I know many people who read this blog are writers, so if you’re one, I know this would sit especially well with you: Mattie is basically the queen of all aspiring writer heroines. Even though she grew up in a rural setting where many are not properly educated, she insists on using correct grammar and writing daily. She loves reading, and if you’re familiar with the classics, you’ll get her many references to them. The dictionary her mother spent a lavish amount of money on is her most prized possession. She has a word of the day, every day, without fail.

There are a lot of things that work here, most of all Mattie’s And you know what was one of my favorite scenes, actually? When she comes across this really nice notebook at the store, and it costs 45 cents. She has 60 cents from selling fiddleheads, and even though her family is wanting for food, and even though she’s extremely considerate of them, she can’t stop herself--she buys it. And later she’s reprimanded for this. It’s such a powerful, trying section of the book.

Despite the focus the official description seems to place on Grace Brown’s death--based on true facts--this is more of Mattie’s story than anyone else’s. The events leading up to the letters and Grace’s death take up the majority of the story, and things switch to the present--when she’s reading Grace’s letters--as they begin relating back to Mattie’s own life. What really sucks is that just when Mattie begins to truly live, the book ends, but it’s an instance where I’ll happily defer to my imagination for contingency because everything up till then was wonderful. The writing is just that beautiful and evocative.

This book, to me, is one and the same as Prep--if you’re not into reading slow-moving, very thoroughly explored, multifaceted stories, you probably won’t enjoy it. But it is, hands down, one of the best, most satisfying books I’ve read in a long time. Despite all my touting of how it’s wonderful this, and wonderful that, do you know how I know it’s a winner? It’s by how easy writing this review was. Positives are usually the hardest, and yet here I am with so much to say. That’s how you recognize a jewel. I kind of want to hug it and never let go. A.

Further: Grace Brown's murder and Jennifer Donnelly's inspiration for writing this book.

Harcourt | 380 pages | April 1st, 2003 | Jennifer's website | GoodReads | IndieBound | Amazon

17 comments:

Madison said...

This is one of my all-time favorite books. It's so beautifully written and is just so freaking real it's not even funny.

beth said...

I just....can't see myself liking this one. I need more action!

Beth F said...

Sounds fascinating. I think I'd love it. Great review.

Thao said...

Not my type of book but this one sounds nice. Love the new cover.

Steph Su said...

Definitely a great book. I remember reading this when it first came out and loving it. Nice review.

Pissenlit said...

Sounds interesting.

Taren said...

Ooh it turns out you were right (surprise surprise) -I would like this one. Must track it down immediately.

Reader Rabbit said...

Sounds good, I'll put it on my reserve list!

Amee said...

I think my mom has this book. I'll have to borrow it. :)

sweetmelissa818 said...

I completely agree. This was one of the most beautifully written stories I had read in a long time. I was so happy to have read it and was even happier in getting to chat with the author via Readergirlz!

Miss Cindy said...

sounds good, i think i'd enjoy it :) thanks for sharing!

Liv said...

Like Prep? Well then it's a must-read for me.

Iryna said...

I think I'll really be able to relate to the main character . . . I'm definitely picking this book up!

Katiebabs a.k.a KB said...

This looks like a poignant and beautiful story.
What lovely covers!

Cassandra said...

I read this when it first came out and FELL IN LOVE. It reminded me of Libba Bray's novels. If you haven't read A Great and Terrible Beuaty, they are similar in the wonderfully explored and fantastically written sort.

soundistheword3 said...

I adored this book and am glad you recommend it so highly to others. Thanks for the links about Donnelly's inspiration and Brown's murder as they certainly add to my perception of the book. I guess I'll just have to go and reread it.

Lana said...

I really related to the part where she talked about her teacher telling her not to write such depressing things, that it wasn't 'suitable' for a girl. I have a similar story. My creative writing teacher actually wouldn't let me write 'fairy-tale style' romance stories because they weren't 'literary' enough. And it was like a fist to the gut.

Hmm. I think I'll add this story to my review now. I've linked to yours here.

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