A Northern Light By Jennifer Donnelly

My Rating: 5 glowing stars

Publisher: Harcourt

Published: April 1, 2003

Recieved: Trift store find

Purchase: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Book Depository


Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey has big dreams but little hope of seeing them come true. Desperate for money, she takes a job at the Glenmore, where hotel guest Grace Brown entrusts her with the task of burning a secret bundle of letters. But when Grace’s drowned body is fished from the lake, Mattie discovers that the letters could reveal the grim truth behind a murder.

Set in 1906 against the backdrop of the murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Jennifer Donnelly’s astonishing debut novel effortlessly weaves romance, history, and a murder mystery into something moving, and real, and wholly original.

“A Northern Light” is a book that I never expected to fall in love with. I had put off reading it for several months thinking that it wouldn’t be my cup of tea, but I took a chance on it because I had read other books from Jennifer Donnelly and loved them. I am so glad I did, this book is phenomenal. The unique way it was written and the soul of the book spoke to me. I will admit that because I was unsure of how I would feel reading this book, it took me about 30 pages or so to get into it, far longer than it should have taken, but once I was hooked, I was a goner.

There were lives in those books, and deaths. Families and friends and lovers and enemies. Joy and despair, jealousy, envy, madness, and rage. All there. I reached out and touched the cover of one called The Earth. I could almost hear the characters inside, murmuring and jostling, impatient for me to open the cover and let them out.

This book is a book for the readers soul. The way Mattie describes her love of books is so true to how I feel. Her desire to be a writer, is a desire of my own. I have never related to a character as strongly as I have to Mattie. Her desire to love, read books, and write novels and poetry are the same desires I harbor in my own heart and it created a connection to this book that I haven’t felt for another in years. 

And I knew in my bones that Emily Dickinson wouldn’t have written even one poem if she’d had two howling babies, a husband bent on jamming another one into her, a house to run, a garden to tend, three cows to milk, twenty chickens to feed, and four hired hands to cook for. I knew then why they didn’t marry. Emily and Jane and Louisa. I knew and it scared me. I also knew what being lonely was and I didn’t want to be lonely my whole life. I didn’t want to give up on my words. I didn’t want to choose one over the other. Mark Twain didn’t have to. Charles Dickens didn’t.

The fear in these words spoke to me. They broke my heart. The unfairness of it all with having to choose between not wanting to be alone and chasing your dreams when others (mostly makes) before didn’t have to, is a tragedy. The way Jennifer wrote this piece is disarming, howling babies, chickens, cows, and hired hands to feed, the sheer amount of duties a women had to undertake in a marriage was and still is an incredible amount. How does one have the time to do it all and pursue a dream on top of it all? 

Go round cringing like a dog, Matt,” he said, “and folks will treat you like one. Stand up like a man, and they’ll treat you like a man.” That was fine for Weaver, but I wondered sometimes, How exactly do you stand up like a man when you’re a girl?

My favorite character after Mattie was Weaver. He was an African American that was strong and true, who loved books as much as Matt did and I loved every minute of their friendship. Their word games and easy way with one another was wonderful. I loved how Weaver never backed down from what was right even if it got him into a lot of trouble. I loved that he believed in Mattie just as much as he believed in himself and he was always there for her and she for him when need be. Their friendship was true and I don’t see that often in books. 

I also loved how Weaver wanted Mattie to pursue her dreams so badly that he was willing to be honest and tell her why she shouldn’t be with Royal, the love interest in this book that I felt wasn’t the match for Mattie. 

Royal is Mattie’s handsome neighbor that is interested only in being a farmer. I disliked how he treated Mattie, but I think the point of her romance with him is to show that no matter what others think that heart desires what it desires and it’s not for anyone to say tell you who you are meant to like. 

Thoughts on the Author’s Note: 

Jennifer’s words at the end of the novel made me smile, because she wrote this story out of grief for the death of a good soul, the soul of Grace Brown. She wanted to give Grace’s life more meaning then what was previously given and I admire Jennifer so much for that. Jennifer definitely accomplished that goal by telling her stories and creating care inside the hearts of readers. She definitely inspired me to care and that is beautiful.

Final Thoughts: 

I could go on about this book for ages, but to say more would spoil the experience. If your reading this, you probably love books, so I hope you give this one a try. If it doesn’t leave your heart soaring with your love for books, well, I don’t know of any other books themed around books that could top the feeling of this one. It is glorious, hopeful, true, and masterfully imagined. Please find it in your heart to give it a try. 

-Till next time!

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