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Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Northern Light: Historical Fiction That Has It All

(Image from Barnes & Noble)
Drudgery [druhj-uh-ree] - noun, plural -er-ies. Menial, distasteful, dull, or hard work. Synonyms: backbreaker, chore, daily grind, elbow grease, gruntwork, labor, menial labor, rat race, slavery, struggle, sweat, toil, travail, workout. (from and

For a girl like Mattie Gokey, who thrills in the discovery of new words and ideas, life cannot get much crueler. With her mother fresh in the grave, she's stuck looking after her grieving father, three rambunctious little sisters, and her family's deteriorating farm. Between cooking, cleaning, milking, tending the crops, and caring for the children, Mattie's got little time for studying. It's 1906 and she's 16, well beyond the age most girls leave school. Still, she's determined. She will finish school, go to college in New York and become a writer. It's the only way to escape the drudgery that rules her life. There's just one problem: She swore to her dying mother that she would take care of the family. Pursuing her dream means breaking that promise, while keeping her vow guarantees a future of hard work and crop talk with her unsophisticated husband-to-be.

Even with her acceptance letter to Barnard College in hand, Mattie knows it's not to be. Her father can't farm 60 acres by himself. Her biggest supporters - her best friend, Weaver, and her teacher, Miss Wilcox - encourage her to go to New York despite her family's protests. Instead, Mattie gets a job at the Glenmore Hotel, a nearby resort catering to wealthy tourists. It's here that a packet of letters is thrust into Mattie's hand by a distressed young woman by the name of Grace Brown. Although Grace insists that she must burn the notes, Mattie forgets about them. Days later, Grace's body is pulled from Big Moose Lake - her fiancee, with whom she went rowing, is missing. As if she doesn't have enough on her mind already, Mattie now has to figure out what to do with Grace's letters. The whole situation is suspicious - should she turn the correspondence over to the police? Reading them seems a breach of privacy, but Mattie can't help herself. As she delves into the young woman's thoughts and dreams, Mattie ponders her own. Is she, like Grace, willing to give up everything she's ever wanted for a man who doesn't appreciate her? Is she destined to live a life of obscurity because she's not brave enough to take a chance? Will duty keep her from living the life she really wants? And then there's the question to which everyone wants an answer: Who killed Grace Brown?

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly tells the parallel stories of Mattie Gokey and Grace Brown, although it's really the former's tale. Mattie's the kind of narrator who's easy to identify with - she's sympathetic, believable, engaging and, most charmingly, word hungry. The reader feels her longing, her desperation, her desire for something beyond the dreary confines of her world. Her voice is so compelling that it makes her story burst into vivid life. And what a story it is. Filled with family drama, mystery, romance and humor, it's one of those historical novels that just has it all. Both entertaining and evocative, A Northern Light is not to be missed.

While there are plenty of deep, contemplative passages in the book, as well as fun bookish lines the following are neither. They're a little risque, but so funny that I couldn't help myself:

"I knew a lot of words - a lot more than Belinda, who giggled all the time and said things like "swell" and "chum" and "hopelessly dead broke" - but not the right ones. I kept my eyes on the furrows for a while, but that got to be boring, so I stared at Royal's backside. I had never really noticed a man's backside before. Pa didn't have one. It was as flat as a cracker. Momma would tease him about it and he'd tell her the lumber bosses worked it off him. I thought Royal's was very nice. Round and proud like two loaves of soda bread. He turned around just then and I blushed. I wondered what Jane Eyre would have done, then realized Jane was English and proper and wouldn't have gone around eyeing Rochester's backside to begin with" (53).

"[Momma]'d sat me down at the kitchen table ... and told me that I was a grown woman now, not a girl anymore, and that a woman's virtue was the greatest treasure she possessed and that I must never, ever give mine to any man but the one I married.

'Do you understand me, Mattie?' she'd said.

I thought I did, but I wasn't sure. I knew what virtue means - goodness, purity, and excellence - because it had once been my word of the day. But I didn't think men wanted to get ahold of those things because Fran told me all they want to get ahold of is your bosoms" (301).


If this were a movie, it would be rated:
PG-13 for some sexual content
To the FTC, with love: I borrowed this book from my local library. I received no compensation for the review - in fact, I paid 40 cents for keeping the book longer than two weeks.


  1. I loved this book, too! I think I gave it a "Leafy" award at the end of my first year (well, few months) of blogging and Jennifer Donnelly came by and thanked me. I was totally flabbergasted then, I mean, who knew authors were so accesible? So accesible, in fact, that I wouldn't even have to seek them out - they would come to me. It doesn't seem so totally mindblowing (though still quite awesome) to me now to have an author comment on my blog, but that first time was especially special. Er, I've wandered off on a tangent, but I'm glad to see you seem to have enjoyed this book as much as I did! Great review!

  2. I really need to get to reading this book, methinks.


  3. Susan - I read this and enjoyed it but compared to her "Rose" trilogy this one doesn't stack up! I would highly recommend The Tea Rose and The Winter Rose. The Wild Rose will be out in 2011

  4. This book on been on my list for so long! I've even had it out from the library a few times but never got it read. I suppose I'll have to go get it again now and hopefully get it read this time.

  5. I think I just found our next book club pick. Thanks for sharing this great review!

  6. Hey I recently discovered your blog and I am in LOVE. I had to comment and tell you that A Northern Light is one of my top favorite books of all time. So it makes me happy that you liked it...when I saw that it was your current read, I was excited for you to post your review because I just KNEW you would love it!

    Thanks for keeping up this blog; as a fellow book junkie and English major, I appreciate your reviews and have started a long list of "books I will read when I graduate next semester and thus have more time" based on your personal recommendations. :) Keep blogging!

  7. great review...I love the little note to the FTC

  8. Hm...I hate to admit it, but I didn't like this one. It's been such a long time, though, that I can't remember why. Maybe I'll have to give it another shot.

  9. This sounds wonderful. Off to see if my library has it.

  10. I absolutely loved this book! It's going to be one of my favorite reads of the year.

  11. I read this back in August and loved it. I'm glad to see I'm not alone!

  12. I adore your blog! Thank you so much for taking the time to post these wonderful reviews. I'm an English Lit. major and quite a book junkie myself. If i culd spend all my time reading, I would. I was recently introduced to your site by my best friend, Katy. (She's the Katy who reiewed on this same post)Together we use sire liek this one to keep us busy with great books.
    I loved A Northern Light! Recommended to me by Katy, this book has taken a coveted spot on my bookshelf :)

  13. Just wanted to stop by again to say that I got A Northern Light from the library and finished it a couple of days ago. Utterly wonderful. Just perfect. Thanks for writing a review that made me want to read it.

  14. What a lovely review -- I always relish your writing. I loved this novel too. I wonder why it took me so long to read it?


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