A Northern Light

By Jennifer Donnelly
Binding:Paperback
Publisher:Harcourt Paperbacks, (9/1/2004)
Language:English



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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.
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"A Northern Light"
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Amazon.com Review

It's 1906 and 16-year-old Mattie Gokey is at a crossroads in her life. She's escaped the overwhelming responsibilities of helping to run her father's brokedown farm in exchange for a paid summer job as a serving girl at a fancy hotel in the Adirondacks. She's saving as much of her salary as she can, but she's having trouble deciding how she's going to use the money at the end of the summer. Mattie's gift is for writing and she's been accepted to Barnard College in New York City, but she's held back by her sense of responsibility to her family--and by her budding romance with handsome-but-dull Royal Loomis. Royal awakens feelings in Mattie that she doesn't want to ignore, but she can't deny her passion for words and her desire to write.

At the hotel, Mattie gets caught up in the disappearance of a young couple who had gone out together in a rowboat. Mattie spoke with the young woman, Grace Brown, just before the fateful boating trip, when Grace gave her a packet of love letters and asked her to burn them. When Grace is found drowned, Mattie reads the letters and finds that she holds the key to unraveling the girl's death and her beau's mysterious disappearance. Grace Brown's story is a true one (it's the same story told in Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy and in the film adaptation, A Place in the Sun), and author Jennifer Donnelly masterfully interweaves the real-life story with Mattie's, making her seem even more real.

Mattie's frank voice reveals much about poverty, racism, and feminism at the turn of the twentieth century. She witnesses illness and death at a range far closer than most teens do today, and she's there when her best friend Minnie gives birth to twins. Mattie describes Minnie's harrowing labor with gut-wrenching clarity, and a visit with Minnie and the twins a few weeks later dispels any romance from the reality of young motherhood (and marriage). Overall, readers will get a taste of how bitter--and how sweet--ordinary life in the early 1900s could be. Despite the wide variety of troubles Mattie describes, the book never feels melodramatic, just heartbreakingly real. (14 and older) --Jennifer Lindsay --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From School Library Journal

Grade 8 Up-Mattie Gokey, 16, a talented writer, promised her dying mother that she would always take care of her father and younger siblings. She is stuck on a farm, living in near poverty, with no way of escaping, even though she has been accepted at Barnard College. She promises to marry handsome Royal Loomis even though he doesn't appear to love her. Now, Mattie has promised Grace Brown, a guest at the Adirondack summer resort where she works, to burn two bundles of letters. Then, before she can comply, Grace's body is found in the lake, and the young man who was with her disappears, also presumably drowned. This is a breathtaking tale, complex and often earthy, wrapped around a true story. In 1906, Grace Brown was killed by Chester Gillette because she was poor and pregnant, and he hoped to make his fortune by marrying a rich, society girl. Grace's story weaves its way through Mattie's, staying in the background but providing impetus. The protagonist tells her tale through flashback and time shifts from past to present. Readers feel her fears for her friend Weaver-the first freeborn child in his family-when he is beaten for being black and his college savings are stolen, and enjoy their love of words as they engage in language duels. Finally, they'll experience her awakening when she realizes that she cannot live her life for others. Donnelly's characters ring true to life, and the meticulously described setting forms a vivid backdrop to this finely crafted story. An outstanding choice for historical-fiction fans, particularly those who have read Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy.
Lisa Prolman, Greenfield Public Library, MA
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Gr. 10-12. Donnelly's first YA novel begins with high drama drawn straight from history: Grace Brown's body is discovered, and her murder, which also inspired Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, is the framework for this ambitious, beautifully written coming-of-age story set in upstate New York in 1906. Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey is a waitress at the Glenmore Hotel when Brown is murdered. As she learns Brown's story, her narrative shifts between the goings-on at the hotel and her previous year at home: her toil at the farm; her relationship with her harsh, remote father; her pain at being forbidden to accept a college scholarship. "Plain and bookish," Mattie is thrilled about, but wary of, a handsome neighbor's attentions, and she wonders if she must give up her dream of writing if she marries. In an intelligent, colloquial voice that speaks with a writer's love of language and an observant eye, Mattie details the physical particulars of people's lives as well as deeper issues of race, class, and gender as she strains against family and societal limitations. Donnelly adds a crowd of intriguing, well-drawn secondary characters whose stories help Mattie define her own desires and sense of self. Many teens will connect with Mattie's deep yearning for independence and for stories, like her own, that are frank, messy, complicated, and inspiring. Gillian Engberg
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

"Jennifer Donnelly has populated her first young-adult novel with a community of distinctive characters who ring rich and true, and grounded it in the often horrific realities of rural life a century ago. We don't just root for Mattie; we come to understand and cherish her." (The New York Times Book Review )

"Jennifer Donnelly has populated her first young-adult novel with a community of distinctive characters who ring rich and true." (New York Times Book Review )

"Jennifer Donnelly has populated her first young-adult novel with a community off distinctive characters who ring rich and true." -- New York Times Book Review, Sep 21 2003 

[star]"Riveting."--Publishers Weekly (starred review)

[star]"A breathtaking tale . . . Donnelly's characters ring true to life, 
and the meticulously described setting forms a vivid backdrop to this 
finely crafted novel . . . Outstanding."--School Library Journal (starred review)

[star]"Beautifully written."--Booklist (starred review)

"Distinctive characters who ring rich and true . . . We don't just root for Mattie; 
we come to understand and cherish her."--The New York Times Book Review

"A remarkable debut."--Scott Turow


"Jennifer Donnelly has populated her first young-adult novel with a community of distinctive characters who ring rich and true, and grounded it in the often horrific realities of rural life a century ago. We don't just root for Mattie; we come to understand and cherish her."--The New York Times Book Review (September 21, 2003)


"Jennifer Donnelly has populated her first young-adult novel with a community of distinctive characters who ring rich and true."
(New York Times Book Review )

"Riveting" (Publishers Weekly )

"A fine blending of characters, setting, and suspense." (School Library Journal ) --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

When summer comes to the North Woods, time slows down. And some days it stops altogether. The sky, gray and lowering for much of the year, becomes an ocean of blue, so vast and brilliant you can't help but stop what you're doing-pinning wet sheets to the line maybe, or shucking a bushel of corn on the back steps-to stare up at it. Locusts whir in the birches, coaxing you out of the sun and under the boughs, and the heat stills the air, heavy and sweet with the scent of balsam.

As I stand here on the porch of the Glenmore, the finest hotel on all of Big Moose Lake, I tell myself that today-Thursday, July 12, 1906-is such a day. Time has stopped, and the beauty and calm of this perfect afternoon will never end. The guests up from New York, all in their summer whites, will play croquet on the lawn forever. Old Mrs. Ellis will stay on the porch until the end of time, rapping her cane on the railing for more lemonade. The children of doctors and lawyers from Utica, Rome, and Syracuse will always run through the woods, laughing and shrieking, giddy from too much ice cream.

I believe these things. With all my heart. For I am good at telling myself lies.

Until Ada Bouchard comes out of the doorway and slips her hand into mine. And Mrs. Morrison, the manager's wife, walks right by us, pausing at the top of the steps. At any other time, she'd scorch our ears for standing idle; now she doesn't seem to even know we're here. Her arms cross over her chest. Her eyes, gray and troubled, fasten on the dock. And the steamer tied alongside it.

"That's the Zilpha, ain't it, Mattie?" Ada whispers. "They've been dragging the lake, ain't they?"

I squeeze her hand. "I don't think so. I think they were just looking along the shoreline. Cook says they probably got lost, that couple. Couldn't find their way back in the dark and spent the night under some pines, that's all."

"I'm scared, Mattie. Ain't you?"

I don't answer her. I'm not scared, not exactly, but I can't explain how I feel. Words fail me sometimes. I have read most every one in the Webster's International Dictionary of the English Language, but I still have trouble making them come when I want them to.

Right now I want a word that describes the feeling you get-a cold, sick feeling deep down inside-when you know something is happening that will change you, and you don't want it to, but you can't stop it. And you know, for the first time, for the very first time, that there will now be a before and an after, a was and a will be. And that you will never again be quite the same person you were.

I imagine it's the feeling Eve had as she bit into the apple. Or Hamlet when he saw his father's ghost. Or Jesus as a boy, right after someone sat him down and told him his pa wasn't a carpenter after all.

What is the word for that feeling? For knowledge and fear and loss all mixed together? Frisdom? Dreadnaciousness? Malbominance?

Standing on that porch, under that flawless sky, with bees buzzing lazily in the roses and a cardinal calling from the pines so sweet and clear, I tell myself that Ada is a nervous little hen, always worrying when there's no cause. Nothing bad can happen at the Glenmore, not on such a day as this.

And then I see Cook running up from the dock, ashen and breathless, her skirts in her hands, and I know that I am wrong.

"Mattie, open the parlor!" she shouts, heedless of the guests. "Quick, girl!"

I barely hear her. My eyes are on Mr. Crabb, the Zilpha's engineer. He is coming up the path carrying a young woman in his arms. Her head lolls against him like a broken flower. Water drips from her skirt.

"Oh, Mattie, look at her. Oh, jeezum, Mattie, look," Ada says, her hands twisting in her apron.

Sssh, Ada. She got soaked, that's all. They got lost on the lake and...and the boat tipped and they swam to shore and she...she must've fainted."

"Oh, dear Lord," Mrs. Morrison says, her hands coming up to her mouth.

"Mattie! Ada! Why are you standing there like a pair of jackasses?" Cook wheezes, heaving her bulky body up the steps. "Open the spare room, Mattie. The one off the parlor. Pull the shades and lay an old blanket on the bed. Ada, go fix a pot of coffee and some sandwiches. There's a ham and some chicken in the icebox. Shift yourselves!"

There are children in the parlor playing hide-and-seek. I chase them out and unlock the door to a small bedroom used by stage drivers or boat captains when the weather's too bad to travel. I realize I've forgotten the blanket and run back to the linen closet for it. I'm back in the room snapping it open over the bare ticking just as Mr. Crabb comes in. I've brought a pillow and a heavy quilt, too. She'll be chilled to the bone, having slept out all night in wet clothing.

Mr. Crabb lays her down on the bed. Cook stretches her legs out and tucks the pillow under her head. The Morrisons come in. Mr. Sperry, the Glenmore's owner, is right behind them. He stares at her, goes pale, and walks out again.

"I'll fetch a hot water bottle and some tea and...and brandy," I say, looking at Cook and then Mrs. Morrison and then a painting on the wall. Anywhere and everywhere but at the girl. "Should I do that? Should I get the brandy?"

"Hush, Mattie. It's too late for that," Cook says.

I make myself look at her then. Her eyes are dull and empty. Her skin has gone the yellow of muscatel wine. There is an ugly gash on her forehead and her lips are bruised. Yesterday she'd sat by herself on the porch, fretting the hem of her skirt. I'd brought her a glass of lemonade, because it was hot outside and she looked peaked. I hadn't charged her for it. She looked like she didn't have much money.

Behind me, Cook badgers Mr. Crabb. "What about the man she was with? Carl Grahm?"

"No sign of him," he says. "Not yet, leastways. We got the boat. They'd tipped it, all right. In South Bay."

"I'll have to get hold of the family," Mrs. Morrison says. "They're in Albany."

"No, that was only the man, Grahm," Cook says. "The girl lived in South Otselic. I looked in the register."

Mrs. Morrison nods. "I'll ring the operator. See if she can connect me with a store there, or a hotel. Or someone who can get a message to the family. What on earth will I say? Oh dear! Oh, her poor, poor mother!" She presses a handkerchief to her eyes and hurries from the room.

"She'll be making a second call before the day's out," Cook says. "Ask me, people who can't swim have no business on a lake."

"Too confident, that fellow," Mr. Morrison says. "I asked him could he handle a skiff and he told me yes. Only a darn fool from the city could tip a boat on a calm day..." He says more, but I don't hear him. It feels like there are iron bands around my chest. I close my eyes and try to breathe deeply, but it only makes things worse. Behind my eyes I see a packet of letters tied with a pale blue ribbon. Letters that are upstairs under my mattress. Letters that I promised to burn. I can see the address on the top one: Chester Gillette, 171_2 Main Street, Cortland, New York.

Cook fusses me away from the body. "Mattie, pull the shades like I told you to," she says. She folds Grace Brown's hands over her chest and closes her eyes. "There's coffee in the kitchen. And sandwiches," she tells the men. "Will you eat something?"

"We'll take something with us, Mrs. Hennessey, if that's all right," Mr. Morrison says. "We're going out again. Soon as Sperry gets the sheriff on the phone. He's calling Martin's, too. To tell 'em to keep an eye out. And Higby's and the other camps. Just in case Grahm made it to shore and got lost in the woods."

"His name's not Carl Grahm. It's Chester. Chester Gillette." The words burst out of me before I can stop them.

"How do you know that, Matti
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Jennifer Donnelly is the author of two adult novels, The Tea Rose and The Winter Rose, as well as the young adult novel A Northern Light,winner of Britain’s prestigious Carnegie Medal, the L.A. Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature, and a Michael L. Printz Honor Award. She lives and writes full-time in upstate New York.



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