Monday, November 28, 2011
A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
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 asks her to burn a bundle of secret letters. But when Grace's drowned body is fished from the lake, Mattie discovers the letters reveal the grim truth behind a murder.
Set in 1906 against a backdrop of the murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, this astonishing novel weaves romance, history, and a murder mystery into something moving, real, and wholly original.
Mattie talks of stories that leave one hopeful and dreamy with their happily ever after’s as opposed to those that leave you shaken. Her’s is a little bit of both. There’s a dash of mystery then some romance and this YA historical leaves me surprised because It’s not something I’d normally read, yet I have to say it had me engrossed. The mystery is just a bonus as it’s a clever tool to introduce Mattie. Northern Light is her story. At first I was likening her to a mix of the March sisters with some of Meg’s mother hen tendencies, Amy’s romantic notions and Joe’s ambition… but she’s not just a mix of those as she’s a woman in the making all her own:
The role of mother had been placed on her. But I enjoyed her more for how ill suited she seemed to it. Her aspirations had me imagining more for her and at first she was imagining more for herself as well. That she felt burdened by her family and held back by her father in particular was of no moment to me. In fact she read a just like Joe in that respect… driven. Until that one thing had her contemplating other possibilities. This one thing? A romantic development that while sweet still had me hoping she’d stick her original plan.
But her story progressed if a little slowly, to reveal to her more of who her father and others really were: That the seemingly emotionally distant father was distant for a reason. That Emmie could be so much more than the impoverished neighbor with a lot of mouths to feed. That Royal is not the romantic hero but rather a man with aspirations and goals of his own. Even Aunt Josie the busy body well-to-do relative was more; it was care of her that there’s even a bit of humor in this one.
Even the absent characters had me thinking. Her mother is most definitely a force in all their lives. She’s what drives the father to behave the way he did. And it’s the change in him that shapes the way the girls carried on. And then there’s Lawton whose absence is most felt and even envied.
Romantic developments aside, the story is more about family than anything else. I love that she’s not the self-sacrificing martyr at first. She takes the role of caretaker reluctantly. I love that she had goals of her own, and at how up front she is in how she feels: feeling held back, burdened. But what I love even more is that she still took the role on. And by doing so, realized that thing she thought true at first might not have been the case after all.