I don’t usually give five stars. In fact, I’ve never done it before. Generally, I don’t think there are that many books out there that deserve it and, frankly, I like to leave room for improvement. However, A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly is one of those rare books that’s in a caliber all its own.
Mattie (Mathilda) Gokey is sixteen years old and dreams of going to college and becoming a writer. Not so unusual, we might think, or even, how trite (there really are so many writers!). But for Mattie, who lives in the backcountry of upstate New York, it’s almost impossible. Because it’s 1906. And guess what? There weren’t a whole lot of girls heading to college back then.
Mattie faces enormous hurtles to achieving her dream. First, there are the monetary hurtles, but she manages to secure a full scholarship to Barnard through the help of an amazing teacher. Second, there are the romantic hurtles because suddenly, the best looking boy (from the neighboring farm) is interested in Mattie and wants to marry her (and he’s fun to make out with).
Lastly, there are tremendous familial challenges: no one in her family has ever graduated from high school. And did I forget to mention that her mother recently died of breast cancer? She even made Mattie (the oldest girl) promise to never leave home so that she could take care of her three younger siblings. Oh, and of course, her oldest and only brother ran away, so their father can hardly run the farm by himself . . . you can see this isn’t just a sappy sweet coming-of-age tale.
In fact, this novel never gets sappy. It’s rich in historic details (enough to make you really appreciate your microwave but not so much to make you hate history) about Mattie’s life, but it doesn’t overwhelm the storyline. Mattie as a character is intricate and complex, and it’s easy to see ourselves in her, even if we don’t always agree with her decisions.
In order to earn enough money to get to New York City, Mattie manages to secure a job at a fancy summer resort in the Adirondacks with her best friend, Weaver (one of the only black men in the county AND he’s also managed to secure a full scholarship to Columbia).
In this setting, Donnelly reveals her true genius by braiding Mattie’s story with that of Grace Brown, a real-life woman who was murdered by her boyfriend (it’s the same story told in Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and in the film adaptation, A Place in the Sun) for being pregnant with his child. Suddenly, Mattie is caught up in a murder mystery that will ultimately force her to face herself and her decisions.
By the end of the novel, I was rooting for Mattie to go to New York so much that I actually had to put the novel down at times because I was getting so worked up! I won’t give away the ending here, but I will say that if you were stuck on a desert island and could only choose one YA novel to bring with you, A Northern Light would be a top contender. Read this book!
Blythe Robbins, a Californian living in New York City, is a geeky editor by day. At night, she can be found reading or writing YA fiction.