Mattie Gokey is full of passion and a longing to express herself. Jennifer Donnelly’s young adult novel, “A Northern Light,” follows Mattie in 1906 as she navigates a society that does not encourage women to take control of their lives.
Smart enough to get a full scholarship to Barnard, Mattie dreams of going to college. However, she is needed on the family farm and unable to leave. But this news doesn’t faze her. She’s passionate about reading, writing and learning a new word from the dictionary every day.
When she takes a job working at the Glenmore Hotel during the summer, she meets the enigmatic Grace Brown. Grace asked Mattie for only one thing: Burn a bundle of letters she had been secreting away. But after Grace is murdered, Mattie has some difficult decisions to make. Should she open Grace’s letters and help solve her murder? Should she give into the advances of Royal Loomis, her charming but incorrigible neighbor? Does she owe her family her duty and stay on the farm or leave at the end of the summer and take her place at Barnard?
While the novel may seem like it belongs in the fiction section of a Barnes and Noble, “A Northern Light” is actually classified as realistic fiction. While Mattie’s story is fictionalized, Grace Brown was indeed murdered in Herkimer County, New York, and it is this fact that makes the story a realistic interpretation of history.
Throughout the novel, Mattie’s voice is poetic and pure, much like her thoughts, feelings and actions. Donnelly doesn’t rely on flowery language to make Mattie seem intelligent and sincere; instead, she uses simple language that finds its way deep into the reader’s soul. She weaves a quiet, unassuming tale about the strength of women.
Through the story of Mattie and Grace Brown, the author reveals the central theme of the novel: the liberation of women. Mattie longs for an education and to be a writer, but at the same time she wants to have a family and a husband who loves her for the right reasons. The choice she makes defines the next century for women.
In addition, “A Northern Light” touches on the racial injustice that occurred at the turn of the century. Mattie’s best friend is Weaver, the only African-American in her town. He dreams of attending Columbia University, the brother school of Barnard. But his dreams are dashed when the town burned his house, along with the money he had saved up for school.
The novel was well-received when it was published in 2003, and was awarded the prestigious Carnegie Medal, recognizing its worth as an outstanding work by a British author for children or young adults. For the seventieth anniversary of the award, “A Northern Light” was listed among the top ten winning works and was chosen as an all-time favorite book to read.
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