Book Review: A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

A Northern LightLast night my daughter Catherine and I met with our mother-daughter daughter book club. We had read A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly. The girls are in eighth grade, and this book addresses more mature subject matters than we’ve addressed before. The girls were ready for it.

Most of us thought A Northern Light was a beautifully written book with well-developed, complicated characters who made difficult choices. It was a great entrée to discuss the limitations put on women by society in the early 1900s, and to talk about how the girls’ choices in life are so different now from when the characters were living or even from when the moms were growing up.

Set in upstate New York, A Northern Light weaves the real-life story of Grace Brown into the fictional story of Mattie Gokey (Mathilda Gauthier). Mattie’s mother has died, exacting a promise from Mattie to take care of her younger sisters and her father and brother. But Mattie’s father is isolated from his family emotionally, as he works non-stop to eke out a living on his farm. Mattie’s brother has left, after a blow-up with his father, and no one expects to see him again. Mattie’s sisters need parenting, but not from an older sister.

And Mattie has dreams of her own. She’s a talented writer who’s been accepted with a scholarship to attend Barnard College in New York. But how will she ever get the money to live while in school or permission from her father to leave? Told in flashbacks between a time when Mattie’s story intersects with Grace Brown’s, a young girl who drowned on a lake at a summer camp in the Adirondacks, and Mattie’s life leading up to that point, the story moves along at a comfortable pace until we ultimately reach the point of Mattie’s biggest decision. Donnelly flawlessly weaves in vivid details of life in the Adirondacks – lumbering camps for logging, isolated farms, summer camps for wealthy tourists, supply boats, and one-room schoolhouses – that transports the reader back to that time in history.

It also deals frankly with several sexual situations. While the passages dealing with these situations were a little awkward to read out loud, they were appropriate for readers eighth grade and older, and they also gave us a chance to discuss some issues that are tough to talk about if you’re not discussing a character in a book. Highly recommended for older mother-daughter book clubs.

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