Sunday, September 26, 2010

'A Northern Light' by Jennifer Donnelly


In my quest to purchase individual titles for my classroom library, author Jennifer Donnelly's A Northern Light kept popping up as a recommendation. Winner of The Carnegie Medal, Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and A Michael L. Printz Award Honor Book, 'A Northern Light' needn't earn my seal of approval to be deemed a worthy teen read, yet I was eager to put my two cents in to the pot! I love turn-of-the-century novels and devoured the book in the car ride to and from Dallas.

After the death of her mother, Mattie, the eldest Gokey daughter is expected to help her father run the family farm. Not an easy task in itself, never mind the three younger sisters she must also tend to and manage. Burdened with the workload of the farm and her family, Mattie's dream of going to college in New York City at Barnard College seems impossible. That is, until her charismatic and feminist teacher Miss Wilcox enables Mattie to land a full scholarship by submitting Mattie's short stories to the college admissions board. However, Mattie still refuses to believe that obtaining her dream is possible, especially when at every turn someone is telling her that women do not belong in college and that an education is worthless and a waste of resources and precious time.

"It's not pride I'm feeling. It's another sin. Worse than all the other ones, which are immediate, violent and hot. This one sits inside you quietly and eats you from the inside out like the trichina worms the pigs get. It's the Eight Deadly Sin. The one God left out.
Hope."

Eager to earn money for college and to help her family's struggling farm, Mattie takes a summer
job at the Glenmore - where she meets hotel guest Grace Brown, whose only interaction with Mattie is to ask her to burn a bundle of letters to her lover. After Grace's lifeless body is fished from the waters surrounding the Glenmore, Mattie hesitantly begins reading the letters that not only foreshadow Grace's demise, but oddly parallel the taxing life decisions Mattie is refusing to face.
Jennifer Donnelly and her gift for character development is remarkable. Even characters that only exist in Mattie Gokey's memories are exquisite. In her longing for her mother who died of breast cancer only a year before, was so easy for me (or anyone who has endured the hell that is cancer) to identify with Mattie's pain and suffering.
“I remembered her singing as she cooked. And standing downstairs in the root cellar in November, smiling at all the food she'd put up. I remember how she made us fancy braided hairdos and how she trudged through the winter fields on snowshoes to bring Emmie Hubbard's kids a pot of stew. I tried very hard to remember only the good things about my mama. To remember her the way she was before she got sick. I wished I could cut the rest out of me the way the doctor tried to cut the cancer out of her, but I couldn't. No matter how hard I struggled to keep my last images of her at bay, they came anyway."

Mattie's memories of her mother and the warmth that her house once shared are palatable...I feel as if I know Mattie's mother, and her father is just as well-developed. Her sisters, friends, uncles, teacher, neighbors - each are critical pieces to the development of the plot and are so rich and dimensional, I would readily a novel written from the perspectives of each.
The murder-mystery surrounding Grace Brown is actually the least interesting sub-plot binding this novel together; this statement is meant as a complement to Donnely's writing. She's developed a cast of characters whose ordinary lives and struggles are just as gut-wrenching and page-turning as an action-packed murder mystery.

I loved, loved, loved the ending and how the plot was parceled neatly its well-wrapped package. Endings that tie to the beginnings always do me in...I love the small revelations I have during the moments after the last line of such books are read. Jennifer Donnelly did that for me, and that's why I'm giving this book a ten out ten stars and an exuberant "thumbs up".

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