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Jennifer Donnelly – A Northern Light

May 3, 2008

61. A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly (2003)

Length: 396 pages

Genre: Historical Fiction; Young Adult

Started: 02 May 2008
Finished: 03 May 2008

Summary: Mattie Gokey is a sixteen-year-old girl with a gift for writing, a love for books, and a desperate hope to go to college… all dangerous things for a poor, motherless, small-town Adirondack farmer’s daughter to have back in 1906. She longs to get away, to be free, but is bound to home by her family’s need, a promise made to her dying mother, and a newfound courtship with a neighbor boy who doesn’t understand the joy she finds in the written word. Intertwined with this is the story of letters left in Mattie’s care by Grace Brown, a guest of the hotel at which Mattie works, shortly before Grace’s body is discovered, drowned in the lake.

Review: Most of the other reviews and descriptions I’ve read about this book (including the back cover) make it out to be a murder mystery (based on a true story), when in fact, the story of Grace Brown’s letters is told in only a few chapters interspersed with Mattie’s backstory, and there’s nothing terribly mysterious about them at all. The story is much more about Mattie’s life leading up to her job at the hotel, and how she struggles to come into herself as a writer and as an adult, when circumstances and society seem to be conspiring to keep her in place. And, while it was well-told – Mattie was a believable narrator with a strong voice, and the details about rural Adirondack living at the turn of the century were obviously well-researched and vividly drawn – there wasn’t that much about the story itself that really grabbed me. Yes, life was hard for young women. Yes, it’s a struggle to become the person you want to be in spite of your circumstances. Yes, feminism is great, and we should be grateful that we don’t have to fight the same battles as Mattie (or Grace). But, although Grace Brown’s letters were the inspiration for the book, I didn’t really buy them as a catalyst, and without the element of the “murder mystery”, this becomes no different from bunches of other “oppressed young women” historical fiction out there. It’s well told, but didn’t really ever grab me as something special. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Probably worth reading, particularly for youngish (12-15?) fans of historical fiction, but don’t be swayed by the awards, or by the story the back cover tells you you’ll be getting.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

First Line: When summer comes to the North Woods, time slows down.


  • p. 9: “When Mama was alive, she could make breakfast for seven people, hear our lessons, patch Pa’s trousers, pack our dinner pails, start the milk to clabbering, and roll out a piecrust” – To curdle.
  • p. 20: “An emerald velvet or a crisp yellow pongee. And once he bought her a silk faille the exact color of cranberries.” – silk of a slightly uneven weave made from filaments of wild silk woven in natural tan color; a soft, transversely ribbed fabric of silk, rayon, or lightweight taffeta.
  • p. 25: “Last time he did, Pa swung a peavey at him and he ran off, and no one heard from him for months.” – a cant hook with a sharply pointed end, used in handling logs.
  • p. 55: “I gave him my glass of switchel.” – A beverage of molasses and water, seasoned with vinegar and ginger.
  • p. 69: “Inside the cabin are sacks of flour, conmeal, sugar, oats, and salt; a basket of eggs; jars of candy; bottles of honey and maple syrup; tins of cinnamon;, nutmeg, pepper, and saleratus; a box of cigars; a box of venison jerky; and three lead-lined tea chests packed with ice – one for fresh meat, one for fish, and the third for cream and butter.” – sodium bicarbonate used in cookery; baking soda.
  • p. 149: “He flapped a hand at the stories and tried to seem all disapproving, but I saw the pride in his eyes as Uncle Fifty told us that there was no one more skillful with a bateau, no one faster or more fearless.” – A long, light, flatbottom boat with a sharply pointed bow and stern.
  • p. 249: “Entrecôtes of beef.” – a steak sliced from between the ribs of a rib roast cut.
  • p. 290: “If garget had set into the cow’ udders, their milk would be streaked with pus and blood.” – inflammation of the udder of a cow; bovine mastitis.
10 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2008 5:48 pm

    Thanks for the review. This sounds like something my daughter might be interested in.

    Actually a book my son really enjoyed recently was an historical fiction novel. It was called “El Tigre” by John Manhold. My son said it appealed to him because it was full of action and adventure but he says all the historical references actually got him interested in learning more about the wild west of the late 19th century. He’s 15 in about a month so I thought it might be perfect for other kids his age who are interested in that period in history.

  2. May 3, 2008 7:47 pm

    Peter just left a very similar message on Literate Housewife’s Blog. He and a colleague, Liz, BOTH left similar comments on my blog, and Liz left a similar comment on Rants and Reads blog. They are a bit spammy, I think.

  3. May 3, 2008 9:15 pm

    Yeah, I got that impression too – especially after taking out some spammy links.

  4. Kasee Lee permalink
    December 5, 2008 12:23 pm

    I liked this book. I twas full of romance, adventure and thrill. I couldn’t keep my eyes off from reading!

  5. burtnay67 permalink
    June 8, 2009 5:42 pm

    I really enjoyed this book, and i recommend this to teens way more than the whole twilight craze, this book has alittle bit more meaning in my opinion. And since im not a huge fan of murder mysteries… glad it really wasn’t.

    • bekah permalink
      July 8, 2010 3:38 pm

      i totally agree! this book is much more well written, and it is extravagant and romantic without being far-fetched and totally meaningless. i’m glad i’m not the only one who thinks twilight is a dud.

  6. August 13, 2009 12:54 pm

    I was also expecting more of a murder mystery, but as a coming-of-age novel I was still impressed. I found an awful lot to relate to there (despite being distinctly less oppressed).

    I enjoyed your review, though, and I’ve linked to it here.

  7. June 1, 2010 10:42 am

    I always avoid reading the backs of books before I start reading so I didn’t realise this was based around a true murder. I really enjoyed it and thought that Mattie was a great character. Here’s my review in case you’d like to read it:


  1. A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly – Review
  2. A Northern Light by Jennifer DonnellyBlue Archipelago Reviews

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