Sunday, September 11, 2011


A Northern Light

by Jennifer Donnelly

This is one of those books I had heard about for years, from many people whose opinions I respect immensely, but never seemed to get to, until just now. It's a period piece, which is not always my style, and it's a weighty read, which for a slower reader like myself can be off-putting when my reading pile is so very tall, but I"m glad I finally took the time to delve into it.

The book opens with Mattie Gokey working at a summer holiday spot in upstate New York, where a body has just been pulled from the lake. The victim had given Mattie some letters to destroy before she went out on the fatal boat ride, and now Mattie has some choices to make as she uncovers some truths in those letters. This story unfolds in chapters that alternate with the chapters about how Mattie came to work there, despite the wishes of her stern father and an engagement that should have seen her home.

Mattie, we learn, is a bright girl who should, in the opinion of her teacher and best friend, be bound for a scholarship she has won at Barnard College with the assistance of her inspiring (but, it turns out, scandalous) teacher. She wants it so badly she can taste it, yet the money to get there seems impossible and worse, her father won't give her permission to go and leave him and her younger sisters behind. She is already torn between wishes and responsibility when Royal gets in the mix, asking her to marry him, and she is pulled in yet another direction by his handsome, solid self. Add to this the trials of her dearest friend, who sees the dreams he longs for fiercely go up in smoke, and in the end, she learns a few hard truths about men and women, about love and duty and destiny.

Mattie is one of those great girl characters, the ones full of spunk and longing and fight, the ones who we root for the whole way, whose frustrations are our frustrations, and she is the core of what makes this book great. There's a lot here, though. A lot about girls and position, a lot about what we want and why, a lot about living in another time, when you were defined by what you looked like and were told not to fight it.

All this, the experience, the realness of it, and the depth of the characters make for a read that pulls you in and stays with you well after you've closed the cover. Highly recommended, and a Printz Honor Book, to boot.

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