“A Northern Light”

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

The Gillette murder case: In 1906, Grace Brown was a worker in the Gillette Skirt Factory (New York State) and was murdered because Chester Gillette, nephew of the owner, didn’t want to marry her after impregnating her. Chester wasn’t wealthy himself, but he wanted to marry a rich girl and have a better life. So, on the pretext of taking Grace away from home to elope, he took her to the Adirondack Mountains (also New York), checked into a hotel under an assumed name, and, took her out on a lake in a canoe. After hitting her in the head with a tennis racket, he tossed her over the side and she drowned. This might have appeared to be an accident, but Grace’s desperate letters to Chester were later found and helped to convict him, although he claimed that Brown had committed suicide. He was executed by electric chair. The murder was one of the most sensational events of the period, with a lot of media coverage, and a very famous novel was written about it about 20 years later (An American Tragedy by Theodore Dresier).

Though no one is out to murder Mattie Gokey, Mattie’s story interweaves with Grace Brown’s. As the novel opens, she is working in the Glenmore Hotel where Grace and Chester (‘Carl”) had stayed. Before Grace goes out on the lake with Chester, she hands Mattie all her letters and asks Mattie to burn them. (This is a fictional aspect of the story.) Mattie can’t sneak to a fire without someone seeing her, so she is stuck with the letters, which she begins to read.

Mattie is also a girl with few options. A top student at her school and a good writer, she earns a scholarship at Barnard College in New York, but there seems to be no way to go. A year earlier, her mother died of breast cancer, and then her only brother ran away from home after a fight with their father. As the oldest girl, Mattie has to take care of the other children and help on the farm. Family farm life is terribly difficult. The work never ends, there are no holidays and no vacations. And without their mother at home, their father can’t go away for extra work and extra money. The Gokeys live on the precipice of poverty, and anything—a serious illness, a bad crop, the death of their cows—could ruin them. The family is grieving, hungry and angry.

Mattie is smitten with Royal Loomis, her neighbor. At least physically. But the reader can see that although Mattie has the hots for Royal, these two would make a terrible match. Royal will make a good farmer, but he can’t understand why Mattie bothers to read, which he regards as a waste of time. Mattie senses the disconnect, too, but can’t see her way out.

I hope students don’t pass up this book because of the era. It’s a great story about the place of women at the turn of the twentieth century and a clever defense of feminism. The scenes when Mattie learns about some of the realities of life are more honest that any YA books I’ve read about the same topics.

Mattie’s best friend, , a married teenager, has twins within a year of her wedding. She almost dies in childbirth because one of the babies is positioned feet first. Though no one ever discussed sex with the girls, afterward,  confines in Mattie that having to care for the babies as well as feed farmhands is wearing the life out her. Her house is filthy. She wishes she’d never married, and she is sick of her husband always ‘at her’ about sex because she is afraid she will get pregnant again. She nurses the twins because she’s told it will keep her from getting pregnant, but her breasts are raw, sore and cracked. She’s gaunt, depressed and exhausted. Mattie is shocked since these realities had always been hidden from her. It’s not the life she wants for herself.

One of the biggest influences in Mattie’s life is her teacher. She appears to be a very independent single woman. Yet she has a secret, and her husband is tracking her down and threatening to put in a mental hospital if she doesn’t behave within her prescribed gender role. Ands legally, he can do this, just because his wife published poetry.

Donnelly also does a good job in giving the reader a sense of class and race issues. Weaver, Mattie’s best friend, is the first free-born child in his family. He, too, is very smart, and the friends often play word games. He plans on going to college and becoming a lawyer. His chances look good, as his mother is always adding to his college fund. But his refusal to put up with names, with the ‘n word,’ keeps the reader in constant tension, knowing that drunken loggers will seek revenge on him. In fact, all of the secondary characters are interesting, three-dimensional folks. As a bonus, the writing is beautiful. The reader sees, hears, smells and tastes life in the country, and identifies with Mattie’s desire for creativity and the education that will give her the opportunity for it.

I highly recommend this one!

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About Victoria Waddle

I'm a high school librarian, formerly an English teacher. I love to read and my mission is to connect people with the right books. To that end, I read widely--from the hi-lo for reluctant high school readers to the literary adult novel for the bibliophile.
This entry was posted in Family Problems, Fiction, Historical Fiction/Historical Element, Human Rights Issues, Young Adult Literature and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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