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In 1906, Chester Gillette murdered Grace Brown on
Big Moose Lake, NY. In 1926, Theodore Dreiser
novelized the murder in An American Tragedy. †In 1955, Dreiser's novel was made into the movie A Place in the Sun.† In 2003, Jennifer Donnelly, updated the
story with a novel for young adult readers entitled A Northern Light. This exciting novel will introduce the next
generation of readers to this intriguing historic murder.
A Northern Light is set between March and August
1906 in the Adirondacks region of New York. Seventeen-year-old Mattie Gokey is
the eldest daughter of an impoverished farming family. Mattie is the scholarly and
bookish one in the family and her teacher is convinced that Mattie has what it
takes to graduate and to go to college. Unfortunately during the winter of 1906
just as Mattie's dreams of college were about to be realized, her mother dies
and her older brother, Lawton leaves to find work elsewhere. Due to her promise
to her dying mother Mattie is left with the weighty responsibility of caring
for her grieving father and her three younger sisters -- precocious Beth aged 5
years, tomboy Lou aged 11 years, and long suffering Abby aged 14 years. In
addition to her previous chores of milking the cows as well as feeding and
tending the other farming animals, her new responsibilities included cooking,
cleaning, and managing the entire household. Not only did the death of her
mother and departure of her brother rob the family of working hands, but also
robbed her father of the freedom to go to the Great North Woods to work as a
logger earning essential income for the struggling family. When the family's
finances finally do dry up, Mattie is forced to seek summer employment at the
exclusive Glenmore Hotel. Her experiences at the Glenmore are anything but rosy
as racism strikes at a closest friend, sexism pursues her through her day,
illness strikes her family, and finally murder strikes at the hotel. All is not
misery and drudgery for Mattie, Royal Loomis the handsome 18-year-old son of a
rich neighbor has taken an interest in her and has come "a sparking."
Mattie has major decisions to make about her future. Will she choose marriage
to Royal? Will she return to the farm or remain at Glenmore? Will she fulfill
her dream of college?
A Northern Light is an eye-opening depiction of
the world of young women at the beginning of the 20th century. The
harsh reality of life at the Gokey's farm is a stark contrasted to the leisure
class' boredom at Glenmore Hotel. Mattie's burdensome life as an young care
giver is compared to the totally exhaustion of Minnie Compeau, Mattie's
childhood friend, life as a young wife and mother. The tolerance of racism and
sexism is contrasted to the common strict social norms and moral codes for
young unmarried women. The limited hopes and prospects of young women from poor
rural families will certainly prove to be an eye-opener for modern young readers.
The addition of the Brown-Gillette murder adds a high level of mystery to the
story and invites readers to seek out the fuller story of the crime and trial
found in Dreiser's work.
A nice touch is the heading of most
of the chapters with a word or phrase that the character supposedly selected
from her dictionary to memorize for the day. The words, general not part of our
modern vocabulary, offer another invitation for young readers to expand their
Jennifer Donnelly She has published three books all within the past year,
including a picture book entitled Humble Pie (2002), an adult novel entitled The Tea Rose (2003), and the young adult novel
entitled, A Northern Light (2003).
A major resource for A Northern Light was the stories from
her grandmother who lived in the region and actually worked at the Glenmore
Hotel during the Brown-Gillette murder. Her website http://www.jenniferdonnelly.com is
filled with background material for her books. Donnelly currently lives in Brooklyn,
A Northern Light is a beautifully
evocative novel about the harsh realities of women's prospects at the turn of
the century. The book contains descriptions of sexual acts, acts of sexism,
racism and a graphic description of childbirth. Novel contains acts of violence
against animals, some are the normal actions of daily farm life and others are
outright abuse. Some content may be upsetting to sensitive readers. I still
highly recommend this book as a realistic depiction of rural life in 1906. (Ages 12 and older)†
© 2003 Su Terry
Su Terry: Education:
B.A. in History from Sacred Heart University, M.L.S. in Library Science from
Southern Connecticut State College, M.R.S. in Religious Studies/Pastoral
Counseling from Fairfield University, a M.Div. in Professional Ministry from
New Brunswick Theological Seminary, a Certificate in Spirituality/Spiritual
Direction from Sacred Heart University. She is a Licensed Minister of the
United Church of Christ and an Assistant Professor in Library Science at
Dowling College, Long Island, NY. Interests in Mental Health: She is interested
in the interplay between psychology, biology, and mysticism. Her current area
of research is in the impact of hormonal fluctuation in female Christian
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