A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

Summary from Goodreads:

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.

This  novel has two stories alternately told. One tells of Mattie and her life in the North woods in her dad's farm. From when her family was still complete, and how she recalled blissfully how that had been. And then her mother was taken away from them by an illness and soon after her  big brother ran away and thus left the weight of having to help out her father in the farm suddenly on her shoulders. Now, being the next in line to her eldest brother she had no choice but to take up the  struggle to do all the numerous back breaking farm chores with her sisters. Her father can never manage the farm all by himself and feed 4 children. Her only respite from all the hard work are words, and books, and school. Everyday, she picks a word out of the dictionary and calls it her "word for the day", she does "word duels" with her best friend Weaver who share the same love for learning and the same dream of going to college. She has a way with words and writes beautiful stories. But this is the North woods where almost everything is all about logging and farming and making a living. Words are just words. Intangible and Insubstantial. Useless and Insignificant.

It is in this part of the story where I began to love Mattie Gokey's character. I found her to be so genuine and so real. I think many teenage girls could be undergoing the same struggles as Mattie right now. There were a lot of Mattie Gokeys then and there could be a lot now. The struggle of duty to family vs duty to fulfill one's dreams for oneself. The fight with society's mindset/standards. In this case, finding a husband and starting a family is of preference as opposed to college and learning in general. Learned girls seems to be scandalous to most of the townspeople. Another thing that made her all the more real is how she reacts towards a handsome young boy, Royal Loomis, who seems to like her. While she loves writing and reading and still dreams of going to college, now with Royal beside her she seems to entertain the thought of settling down with him and starting a family and their own farm. I like how she honestly pointed out that it's not necessarily that she and Royal share the same dreams and like the same things. But it's more of that physical attraction or what she refers to as "sparking". That and the sense of security and stability of having someone beside you. She accepts that and yet feels conflicted.

The other story tells of her experience as a maid in a posh hotel in Big Moose lake called the Glenmore. In order to help support her family and perhaps earn a little extra on the side for college, she convinced her father to allow her to take up a job in the said hotel. Here a murder mystery seems to unfold in her hands in the form of letters from the corpse fished out of the lake identified as Grace Brown, a hotel guest. The latter having given Mattie the letters and instructing her to burn them just before she went boating to her doom with her male companion. From the summary, I thought that a huge chunk of the book would be about the said murder but it wasn't at all the center of the story. I can't exactly know for sure how Grace Brown's death figure in Mattie's life up until now that I've finished the book. Perhaps it's the fact that both women seem to have shared the same feeling of helplessness, of having no choice. Only Mattie woke up before Grace did and decided that she did have a choice after all. As to what she did chose, I will leave for you to discover.

I hardly read historical novels and so I was surprised at how attached I was to this story. Perhaps it's the fact that despite that it was set in the 1900s and is fictional, I could tell that Mattie's struggles could very well be experienced by many girls all over the world. Like I've said earlier, there are a lot of Mattie Gokeys out there. That and the fact that I have found a kindred book lover in her. Here's a few lines from the book that made me smile:

"What I saw stopped me dead in my tracks. Books. Not just one or two dozen, but hundreds of them. In crates. In piles on the floor. In bookcases that stretched from floor to ceiling and lined the entire room. I turned around and around in a slow circle, feeling as if I'd just stumbled into Ali Baba's cave. I was breathless, close to tears, and positively dizzy with greed."

"There were dozens of names I didn't know. Eliot. Zola. Whitman. Wilde. Yeats. Sand. Dickenson. Goethe. And all those were in just one stack! 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."

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly is a 2003 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature Winner, a 2003 Carnegie Medal Winner and a 2004 Michael L. Printz Award Honor Book recipient. This is my 7th entry in the Award Winning Books Challenge hosted by Gathering Books.


  1. Oh wow, Tin, she sounds exactly like my kind of girl. A smart girl who loves booksbooksbooks! I haven't heard of this novel yet (despite its being multi-award-winning). Had I known about this, we would have included it in our Girl Power theme until the first week of May. Thank you for such a beautiful review.

    1. Oh I think you are going to love it Myra! I was surprised at how much I adored this book given that I usually gravitate towards the fantasy stuff.:) I hope that you would get a chance to read it though because it's an amazing, amazing book most especially since we too are bookish like Mattie. :D

  2. I've always wanted to read this after reading Jennifer Donnelly's The Tea Rose. Your review is another one that urges me to pick it up.

    1. I haven't heard of The Tea Rose. Is it a historical novel as well? YA? I do know she has a book called The Revolution, I saw a copy in a bookstore a few days ago. I don't think my review does A Northern Light justice, Chris.:) This is one of those books that I'd shamelessly push for book lovers to read. *push push* :D

  3. Haha, sige, I'll pick it up! Tea Rose is historical, one of those turn-of-the-century Coming to America stories. (Well, not completely turn-of-the-century, but close). Sweeping and grand, a bit telenovela-ish and dramatic, but I really found myself caught up in the story. It's thick but I finished it in such a short time.

  4. Hi Tin! This post of yours won in the April AWB Reading Challenge. Do send us your postal mail address so we can send your book prize over. :) Congratulations!

    1. Hi Myra! I just sent it my contact details via the "contact us" link at the Gathering Books site.

      Thanks! (I won! Woohoo!) :D


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