Mattie Gokey has big dreams for her future in a difficult present. Around the turn of the century, she finds herself serving as a farm hand for her father whose oldest son has fled as well as mother to her three sisters after her own mother dies from cancer. As she deals with her day to day struggles Mattie takes refuge in words, looking up a new one every day in her mother's treasured dictionary and committing it to memory. Mattie aspires to get her high school diploma and go to school in New York City where she can develop her talent for writing stories and eventually write books of her own. However, much stands in her way. Even attending school past the age of fourteen is unusual and puts a strain on her relationship with her father who counts on her help with the farm in the absence of her mother and older brother. The family has little money, and Mattie knows she can't count on any financial help to make her dream come true. And there's the "problem" with the handsome Royal Loomis who, it seems, is sweet on her.
When her father allows her to spend the summer working at the Glenmore, a lake resort of tourists, Mattie's dream seems within reach, but her love for Royal and a promise made to her mother on her deathbed force Mattie to reconsider her formerly single-minded pursuit of a college education. In the meantime, a mysteriously drowned young woman is taken from the lake, and as Mattie reads the dead woman's letters to her beloved as her own life marches on, Mattie finds the answers she's been looking for.
Donnelly creates parallel storylines; one which begins with the discovery of the drowned Grace Brown at the Glenmore and the other which explores Mattie's life up until that point. Each "past" chapter is headed with Mattie's word of the day which not only helped to enrich my vocabulary but also helped to shed light on crucial plot points. The portion of the story involving Grace Brown and her letters, though weaker than the rest, still serves to illuminate Mattie's experience; and when the two stories meet with a brilliant "ah-ha" moment for Mattie, the use of this structure really pays off.
Donnelly spectacularly channels Mattie's first person narrative making it seem like we truly are in Mattie's head. Down to the finest detail she stays in character, describing feelings, events, and even other characters' facial expressions in ways that always relate to Mattie's experience. Take, for example, Mattie's reaction to Royal's appraising look at her:
He looked at me closely, his head on an angle, and for a second I had the funniest feeling that he was going to open my jaws and look at my teeth or pick up my foot and rap the bottom of it.
Using Mattie as a jumping off point, A Northern Light thoughtfully works through problems facing women at the turn of the century that continue to apply in some measure today. At the time, new doors were opening for women that didn't involve husbands or babies, but strong expectations that women would still follow that path were still predominant. Even today, I felt like I could see parts of myself in Mattie as she struggled with whether to follow her dream to attend college and write books of her own or to choose to value marriage and family more. Donnelley is successful in portraying the good and bad things about each scenario, which really impressed me. While I appreciate how far women have come, I feel that so many women have become overeager to deride "traditional" roles, and I really appreciated that Donnelly didn't seem to stoop to that level. The balanced view of things really helped me to care deeply about Mattie and what decision she would make in the end. All in all, A Northern Light is a spectacular read about a young woman learning who she is and what she wants out of life and then choosing to go after it. I look forward to reading more from this author in the future.
Read another review at Valentina's Room.