Thursday, June 18, 2009

Having Everything

Jennifer Donnelly's A Northern Light is such a lovely, plaintive book. It interweaves the true death of a young woman in 1906 with the tale of a fictional girl, Mattie Gokey, growing up in the Great North Woods. Donnelly was inspired by Grace Brown's letters as well as the stories told by her grandmother, who grew up in the region. It reminded me a bit of Northern Borders by Howard Frank Mosher, although I resonated more deeply with Donnelly's protagonist, possibly because she's a young woman who dreams of being a writer.

The novel's chapters alternate between two time frames, and the story concludes when these time frames meet. The first storyline begins with the discovery of the drowned body of Grace Brown and the mystery of her missing partner. Mattie works at the lakeside hotel where Grace and her companion were staying. The second storyline begins a few months earlier, as Mattie struggles to finish high school, mourns her recently deceased mother, and cares for her father, younger siblings, and their farm. Mattie is bright and creative, with a love for books and words. She and her best friend Weaver, the town's only black boy, dream of going to college in New York City.

The novel is filled with the overwhelming grind of everyday life and much tragedy. So many scenes were heartbreaking and a few were amusing. On a personal note, it was therapeutic for me to read this book this week. Whenever I became overburdened with my daily responsibilities of caring for my baby, housekeeping, and freelance editing, I would pick up A Northern Light and read about Mattie's friend trying to care for her newborn twins, cook for her husband and all the farm hands, boil laundry, etc. To say life was hard is an understatement.

The mysteries of the story are thinly veiled, but the manner in which Donnelly reveals information is touching and deeply personal. She focuses more on the effect the revelation of truth has on Mattie than on manufacturing twists and surprises for the reader. I still hurt right through when I think about Mattie talking about her first kiss and how nice it felt because it was the first time anyone had embraced her since her mother's death nearly a year ago.

A Northern Light
is delicately composed and is a credit to Mattie's literary idols (e.g., Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Louisa May Alcott), and although it has obvious appeal to women, I believe men would appreciate the quality of the work as well. (At least you fellows ought to do so!)


Felix Grant said...

I ordered this from Amazon when you recommended it.

Yesterday Amazon told me it had been shipped.

Today I found a copy on a charity bookstall...

Watoosa said...

Felix, how frustrating! Well, Amazon has a good return policy, although I can't recall whether they refund shipping. It'll make an excellent gift for a friend.
I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Jackamo said...

I knew that you'd love it as soon as I read it. I'm so glad that you resonated with Mattie as strongly as I did. It is such a beautiful and poignant story.

Felix Grant said...

Watoosa - belatedly, yes, I enjoyed it very much.

Thank you!

I didn't attempt to review it, but have at last mentioned it and my debt to you for the recommendation here