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A Northern LightReview - A Northern Light
by Jennifer Donnelly
Harcourt Children's Books, 2003
Review by Su Terry
May 13th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 20)

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 reading horizons.

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, NY.

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 mystics.


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