A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
September 1, 2004; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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. Includes a reader's guide and an interview with the author. (courtesy of Goodreads)
A Northern Light is a stark, haunting, beautiful novel. As one would expect from a book described as stark and haunting, much of it is dark and depressing. I generally like darkness in a novel. But sometimes I am in the mood for something cheery. I was, unfortunately, in such a mood while I was reading A Northern Light. If I'd been smart, I would have put it down and picked it up at a different time, but I'd been wanting to read the book for such a long time that I pushed through it. I enjoyed A Northern Light, but I probably would have liked it more if I'd been in a different mood.
Mattie is the star of our novel. She is an avid-booklover and wordsmith, which makes her immediately endearing to the reader. Mattie is stuck between a rock and a hard place. She desperately wants something more of her life: to go to college, get of of her small town, and become a writer. Yet with her mother's death, her father's embitterment, and her family's poverty, the chief burdens of care-taking have fallen upon Mattie. Her family needs her. Mattie may want out, but her love and duty to her family comes first.
The book alternates between the past and present - not a significant difference - between about spring and summer - and finally merges together at the end of the book. In the spring, Mattie wants to get away but is wracked with guilt. In the summer, Mattie has gotten away - to a job at a nearby resort - but thinks she'll probably never go further from home than that. All this changes when Mattie reads the letters of a young woman, a guest of the resort, is murdered.
I particularly liked some of the side characters. Mattie's best friend Weaver was a likeable, layered character. He was scary smart, funny, and loyal. As the only black young man in their small town, he aspired to become a lawyer and bring forth justice. He also tended to overreact at any perceived slight, which was understandable but not particularly smart given the time period. Ms. Wilcox, Mattie's teacher, was also wonderful. She helped open Mattie's eyes to the beauty and sorry of the world. I even liked Mattie's quasi-beau Royal. Like may not be the right word, but I appreciated him. He was handsome, arrogant, narrow-minded, and dull, but he felt real. I liked the role he played in the book, even if many of his actions were despicable.
The writing of this novel is both good and bad. Prose good, plotting bad. Donnelly's prose is full of imagery and emotion. Her words soak into your skin as you read them like a warm, sunny day (sorry - my attempts at artful prose is not as good, but you get my drift). It's like reading poetry.
Unfortunately, the plotting is not as good. The book is overly ambitious. There are a dozen plot points and there isn't time enough to explore even half of them thoroughly. I like books that challenge me to think as I'm reading, but this made me work and then left me hanging. I particularly disliked the fact that the murdered woman's letters are set up as being the keystone of the novel, but they didn't appear until we were significantly through the book. While I could tell what influence Donnelly wanted me to believe the letters had on Mattie, the book didn't really convince me. Also, the time shifts were confusing. They were often sudden and there was no notation whether it was past or present. I was able to figure it out eventually through context, but it took away from my enjoyment of the plot. I appreciate the use of time shifts as a literary trick, but I would rather marvel at the story itself than the craft of writing.
A Northern Light is a good book, but could have been better. Luckily, Donnelly appears to have learned from her early works, because her new YA book Revolution is absolutely wonderful. I still recommend A Northern Light to anyone who likes skilled prose, a strong main character, historical fiction, and dark themes.