December 29, 2007
A Northern Light
A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
Published in the UK as A Gathering Light
Young Adult Fiction
Rating: 4/5 (Very good)
Mattie Gokey has a word for everything. She collects words, stores them up as a way of fending off the hard truths of her life, the truths that she can't write down in stories.
The fresh pain of her mother's death. The burden of raising her sisters while her father struggles over his brokeback farm. The mad welter of feelings Mattie has for handsome but dull Royal Loomis, who says he wants to marry her. And the secret dreams that keep her going--visions of finishing high school, going to college in New York City, becoming a writer.
Yet when the drowned body of a young woman turns up at the hotel where Mattie works, all her words are useless. But in the dead woman's letters, Mattie again finds her voice, and a determination to live her own life.
Set in 1906 against the backdrop of the murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, this coming-of-age novel effortlessly weaves romance, history, and a murder mystery into something moving, and real, and wholly original.
With Christmas quickly approaching, I knew I needed to choose a book that would hold my attention, but be light enough to pick up and set aside as need be. After a few failed attempts with other novels, A Northern Light proved to be just the book I was looking for. I enjoyed Donnelly's narrative style, alternating between past and present, the suspense building, yet never becoming predictable. Mattie is a loveable character, and I found myself hoping things would work out well for her. While not entirely a happily-ever-after, the ending was quite satisfying.
The Fulton Chain Floating Library is only a tiny room, an overeager closet, really, belowdecks in Charlie Eckler's pickle boat. It is nothing like the proper library they have in Old Forge, but it has its own elements of surprise. Mr. Eckler uses the room to store his wares, and when he finally gets around to moving a chest of tea or a sack of cornmeal, you never knew what you might find. And once in a while, the main library in Herkimer sends up a new book or two. It's nice to get your hands on a new book before everyone else does. While the pages are still clean and white and the spine hasn't been snapped. While it still smells like words and not Mrs. Higby's violet water or Weaver's mamma's fried chicken or my aunt Jossie's liniment.
I used to wonder what would happen if characters in books could change their fates. What if the Dashwood sisters had had money? Maybe Elinor would have gone traveling and left Mr. Ferrars dithering in the drawing room. What if Catherine Earnshaw had just married Heathcliff to begin with and spared everyone a lot of grief? What if Hester Prynne and Dimmesdale had gotten onboard that ship and left Roger Chillingworth far behind? I felt sorry for these characters sometimes, seeing as they couldn't ever break out of their stories, but then again, if they could have talked to me, they'd likely have told me to stuff all my pity and condescension, for neither could I.
The main house has four stories plus an attic. Forty rooms in all. When the hotel is fully booked, as it is this week, there are over a hundred people in the building. All strangers to one another, coming and going. Eating and laughing and breathing and sleeping and dreaming under the same roof.
They leave things behind sometimes, the guests. A bottle of scent. A crumpled handkerchief. A pearl button that fell off a dress and rolled under a bed. And sometimes they leave other sorts of things. Things you can't see. A sigh trapped in a corner. Memories tangled in the curtains. A sob fluttering against the windowpane like a bird that flew in and can't get back out. I can feel these things. They dart and crouch and whisper.
I've had this book for a few years now and I'm glad I finally got around to reading it. Even better, I now have an ARC of The Winter Rose (Donnelly's sequel to The Tea Rose). I can't think of a better choice to start off the New Year!
Go here and here for further details of novel, as well as Donnelly's inspiration for writing it.