A Northern Light
By Jennifer Donnelly
Harcourt Books, 2003
ISBN: 978-0-15-216705-9/978-0-15-205310-9 (paperback)
Awards/recognitions: *Printz Honor Book *ALA “Top Ten” Best Book for Young Adults *Booklist Editor’s Choice *Booklist Top Ten Youth First Novel *Book Sense 76 Top Ten Book for Teens *Junior Library Guild Selection *A New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age *A Parent’s Guide Children’s Media Young Adult Honor Book *A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year *A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
This is our oldest selection for Girls of Summer, and I couldn’t be more committed to including this title. It debuted when I was writing my first novel, and I still remember closing the book and wondering if I would ever be able to write something that felt so completely satisfying. Jennifer Donnelly has gone on to write other acclaimed titles, but none have earned my heart the way this one did as a word geek, as a writer, as a feminist, and as a fan of good whodunit.
It’s 1906, and Mattie Gokey, working as a hotel domestic for the summer, finds herself faced with a girl drowned in the lake – and a pocketful of letters the girl asked her to burn. So begins the unraveling of a sad mystery based on the scandalous real-life death of skirt factory employee Grace Brown, whose untimely death was the basis for Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy and later, the Academy-award winning movie, A Place in the Sun.
In Donnelly’s deft hands, however, Grace Brown’s death is a parallel to the larger conflict for Mattie: being a girl robbed of choices. A deathbed promise to her mother has left Mattie caring for her three sisters and father, who are struggling with the daily demands of keeping up a farm. Her dreams to study at Barnard, where she has already been accepted, are at odds with virtually every reality in her life: her promise, her father’s wishes, and the social mores for women of the time. The future she wants is on a collision course with the approval of her entire social circle, including Royal Loomis, the handsome young man every girl should want.
Mattie is a girl searching for the words to name and explain her experience, words that are too big, too scary for all but her dearest friends. In the end, like all strong girls, she has to ask herself the hard questions and find her own answers. What defines a woman as respectable – or conversely, as dangerous, immoral, and even a lunatic? Who gets to make those definitions? Populated with a cast of layered and contradictory characters, A Northern Light gives us a story about people, motives, and the tough choices we make in order to find ourselves. MM