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*****= An all-time favorite
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***A Northern Light

by Jennifer Donnelly

Reviewed May 25, 2003.
Harcourt, Orlando, 2003.  389 pages.
A 2004 Michael L. Prinz Honor Book.

A Northern Light, is an exquisitely crafted book.  Usually I’m not crazy about flashbacks, but this author expertly wove together two distinct timelines in the life of her main character in a way that reveals exactly the right amount of information at the right time.  The book is full of suspense, as we understand a little of what has happened, but are dying to know how it came about.

The book begins on July 12, 1906, after the body of a young lady has been washed up on the shores of a lake by the hotel where Mattie Gokey works.  Before the lady went out boating with her young man, she gave Mattie a set of letters and made her promise to burn them.

The next chapter takes us back to the previous spring.  Mattie is caring for her younger brothers and sisters and working hard to keep the farm running after their mother’s death.  We learn that Mattie wants desperately to go to college and study to be a writer.  Each chapter is headed by Mattie’s word of the day, as she savors words and rejoices in every book she can lay her hands on.  Her teacher, Miss Wilcox, encourages her gift for writing and urges her to go on to college, but Mattie made a promise to her dying mother.  Then there’s the matter of the handsome Royal Loomis, who would like to marry Mattie and make her a farm wife.  He’s strong and handsome and helps them on their farm when they desperately need it.  Mattie loves being with him.

While this storyline carries on, we also slowly discover the content of the letters.  What happened to the woman who drowned?  Why did she call the young man Chester, when he signed into the hotel register as Carl Grahm?

This book is masterfully written.  It’s another one that makes me wish we had a young adult section in our library, as it’s not a book for young children, and I’m afraid that teens won’t find it in the children’s room.  Mattie has a pessimistic outlook on life.  She calls Jane Austen a liar because she presents happy endings, and indeed no one around Mattie seems to get a happy ending in their lives.  I was reminded of a quotation in one of L. M. Montgomery’s Emily books (Alas!  I can’t find the exact passage) where Mr. Carpenter says something like “Spring flowers are every bit as real as pigsties, but the flowers are a darn sight prettier.”  The fact that I was arguing with Mattie in my mind points up how real her character is.

The book leans more toward the pigsty version of reality (or at least Mattie does), and perhaps that’s why it didn’t quite capture my heart.  It did, however, captivate my mind completely.  In terms of structure, character development, and food for thought, this book is a masterpiece. 

You can link to Jennifer Donnelly's website from my page Links for Book Lovers.

Reviews of other books by Jennifer Donnelly:

Copyright © 2003 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved. 
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