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A Northern Light

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Publication date  April 1, 2003
OCLC  49796591
Author  Jennifer Donnelly
Country  United States of America
3.8/5 Goodreads

Language  English
ISBN  978-0-15-216705-9
Originally published  1 April 2003
Publisher  Harcourt
Awards  Carnegie Medal
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Media type  Print (hardback & paperback), Audiobook
Pages  389 pp (first edition) includes bibliography
Genres  Young adult fiction, Historical novel, Children's literature, Historical drama
Similar  Jennifer Donnelly books, Carnegie Medal winners, Young adult fiction books

Book review a northern light by jennifer donnelly

A Northern Light, or A Gathering Light in the U.K., is an American historical novel for young adults, written by Jennifer Donnelly and published by Harcourt in 2003. The story is known as Realistic Fiction because of the untrue life story of Mattie Gokey, the real death of Grace Brown, and the events that could take place in the 1900s. Set in northern Herkimer County, New York in 1906, it is based on the Grace Brown murder case —the basis also for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (1925). It features a girl -the narrator-, who gets caught up in the events.


In the U.K., Bloomsbury published an edition within the calendar year, entitled A Gathering Light, and Donnelly won the 2003 Carnegie Medal, recognizing the year's outstanding book by a British author for children or young adults. For the 70th anniversary of the Medal a few years later it was named one of the top ten winning works, selected by a panel to compose the ballot for a public election of the all-time favourite.

A northern light book trailer

Nonfiction element

Jennifer Donnelly intertwines this real-life murder of Grace Brown with fictional Mattie Gokey's story. The readers get a taste of how bitter and sweet ordinary life is in the 1900s mixed with a non-fiction murder mystery.

Plot summary

The novel centers on a feisty and smart sixteen-year-old narrator Mathilda "Mattie" Gokey with strong morals. The novel takes place in the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York (the "North Woods") during 1906. Mattie dreams of going to Barnard College in New York City. While smart enough to go, her father does not allow her: there is no one to work on the farm except Mattie and her three younger sisters, Abby, Lou, and Beth. Her mother died and her brother Lawton left home because of a fight with their father.

Mattie's is passionate about reading and writing; she looks up a new word in her dictionary so that she can educate herself. Her best friend, Weaver Smith, is also intelligent and has large aspirations. Weaver is African-American and is as strong in math as Mattie is in literature. Weaver shows Mattie's writings to their teacher, Miss Wilcox, who sends an application for Mattie to Barnard College . Mattie gets "full scholarship" to Barnard but she knows she can't afford to buy the books and a train ticket, or to leave her family's farm.

Mattie soon finds out that Miss Wilcox clandestinely writes feminist poetry, which is unwelcome in the world of literature. She writes about the lack of rights for women, which is a sensitive subject at the turn of the century. Many people think poorly of her, but she keeps writing, encouraging Mattie to do the same.

Mattie doesn't give up completely on going to college. Mother had made her promise to pursue knowledge, and Mattie intends to. She cleans her rich and nosy Aunt Josie's house every week and tries to ask her for money, but Aunt Josie tells Mattie she is being selfish to try and leave the farm and the family, like her brother Lawton. Aunt Josie refuses to give Mattie money.

Mattie, a romantic, is jealous of her friend, Minnie's, loving relationship with her husband Jim. Later on in the novel, Mattie helps Minnie give birth to her twins.

The novel is written in alternating chapters from the past and present. In the past, Mattie explains her life on the farm; in the present she works at The Glenmore, a hotel on Big Moose Lake, to earn money during the summer. The body of Grace Brown is found in the lake near the hotel. Earlier that day, Grace had asked Mattie to burn a pack of letters. Mattie didn't have time to burn them. She is drawn in by the mystery of what they might say, and she begins to read them. They reveal some shocking information about Grace's lover, Chester Gillette, who checked into the hotel as Carl Grahm. Grace was pregnant with Chester's child at the time, so he killed her.

Royal Loomis is also a major part of this story. He has recently developed a crush on Mattie, but she can't figure out why. She thinks she is plain, bookish, and too smart for her own good. Even though Mattie knows she likes Royal, she continues to push him away because she doesn't think he likes her for the right reasons. Despite the rejection, it draws Royal even closer. Still young and naive, Royal's continuous advances make Mattie nervous, but she can't resist. She compares Royal to the characters in books she reads, and makes herself think that he is as heroic as the literary characters. He tries to connect with her by giving her a book for her seventeenth birthday. Unfortunately, he gives her a cookbook, which is a backhanded gift that shows he wants her to be just like other girls. Mattie is more confused than ever with Royal's insincere advances. Unfortunately, all of the mixed feelings that she has for Royal end up being pointless because, in the end, he only likes her because he wanted to get a part of her land.

Emmie Hubbard is Mattie's lonely, poor, and depressed neighbor who has seven children. Emmie is having an affair with a married man, Frank Loomis (Royal's father). Royal resents the Hubbards because he thinks his father treats them better than his own family.

After Weaver's house is set on fire by the same people that attacked him while he was running an errand at the train station and all of his saved college money is stolen, Emmie steps up and invites Weaver's mother, Aleeta, to stay with her in her home. Now Emmie has a good, strong-willed woman to clean her up and help her with a business to make money. Weaver's mother has a place to stay where she is needed.

In the end, Mattie makes the incredibly difficult choice to leave the North Woods and go to school in New York City. She leaves in the morning, and the only person she tells is Weaver. She writes three letters, one to her father, one to Royal, and one to Weaver's mother. To her father, she leaves two dollars and a promise that she will keep in touch. To Royal she leaves the ring that he gave to her when he proposed. Finally, to Weaver's mother she leaves just enough money to pay off Emmie's taxes. She also gives Weaver money for a train ticket to college. As her closest friend, Weaver does not want her to leave but he understands that she is going to make a better life for herself. Though she feels incredibly guilty for leaving, she can't help but also feel excited, scared, and willing. She has made her peace with Grace because she decided to show the letters to the world so now every one can see the true, tragic story of Grace Brown. She is now ready to leave it behind, and keep her life in the North Woods as a memory.

Major characters

  • Mattie Gokey: age 16 (she later turns 17), the eldest daughter of a widower farmer, who earns a college scholarship and really wants to become a writer. Mattie states that she is good at telling herself lies, and other characters comment she often seems oblivious to the events going on around her. Mattie believes that she is not courageous like Weaver or Miss Wilcox, but eventually finds the courage to go to New York.
  • Emily Baxter/Wilcox: is an unconventional poet who has written poems controversial enough that they have been burned and condemned by the highest authorities. Her husband, who does not approve of Emily's poetry, tries to get her committed and eventually, she flees to Paris. Under the name of Miss Wilcox, she acts as a teacher and friend to the main character, Mattie. She also helps Mattie achieve her dream of going to college.
  • Weaver Smith: is the only black boy in the entire area and Mattie's best friend. He worked at the Glenmore Hotel along with Mattie in order to earn money for the train ticket to New York City, where he would attend Columbia University. Weaver is often a source of inspiration and exasperation to Mattie, and they both share a love of books, making Weaver frustrated by Mattie's affections for the inarticulate Royal Loomis.
  • Royal Loomis: is a handsome but dull boy who Mattie and many other girls are sweet on. Although he doesn't understand Mattie's love for books and words, after spending some time together, he asks to marry her and she says yes. Mattie, however, returns the ring later on after she decides to go to New York City. Royal harbours bitterness toward Emmie Hubbard and her children, as his father treats Emmie better than he does his wife. In the end, he only liked Mattie because of the possibility of getting her land.
  • Minnie Compeau: is Mattie's best girl-friend. She's pregnant with twins, who Mattie helps deliver later on in the plot. Minnie is married to Jim Compeau and they are very much in love, in comparison to Mattie's uncertainty towards Royal.
  • Abby, Lou and Beth: are Mattie's three sisters. Beth is the youngest, aged 5, is described to be a noisy, boisterous little girl. Mattie states in the book that she knows Beth will grow up to be 'truly beautiful' someday. Lou is the middle sister, aged 11, and is very wild and tomboyish. Before the death of their mother and their brother Lawton leaving, Lou was very close to their father, and is hurt by the sudden distance between them. She is the only girl out of the four sisters to have her father's blue eyes and black hair, which she shares with Lawton, their brother. Lou frequently cuts her hair out of anger and to suit her boyish attitude. Abby, the second oldest, is 14 and described as being kind but somewhat introverted. She is also a better cook then Mattie is. Mattie, Abby and Beth all have brown hair and eyes, like their mother. Mattie's sisters are another reason why Mattie is torn between going to New York and staying to look after them.
  • Emmie Hubbard: is a widow whose farm lies between the Loomis' and the Gokeys. Emmie is considered to be 'the village fruitcake'. She has several children, but most of them have different fathers. Tommy, one of her eldest, is very close to Mattie; she considers him a little brother. Emmie's children often go to their neighbors to beg food off them. When Weaver's mother is attacked near the end of the novel, however, Emmie reforms and repays her kindness by taking care of her. As a result, Emmie's home situation improves and her children begin to help with the farming, being unable to previously due to Emmie's frequently unstable moods. The Loomis family dislikes the Hubbards.
  • Aunt Josie: Mattie's rich, stuck up aunt. No matter what Mattie does she cannot please her.
  • Table 6: The perverted man at the hotel who indecently exposes himself to the waitresses.
  • Cook: The chief at Glenmore. She is pushy, but cares about the waiters.
  • Jim Compeau: Minnie's husband. He loves Minnie and their twins.
  • Mr. Baxter: Miss Wilcox's husband who doesn't approve of her "free" writing style.
  • Mr. Frank Loomis: Father of Royal and his brothers, who is cheating on his wife with Emmie.
  • Mrs. Iva Loomis: The stuck-up mother of Royal and his brothers. Mattie says she understands why Mr. Loomis is cheating on her.
  • Grace Brown: The body that shows up in Big Moose Lake. A girl who is killed by Chester Gillette and was pregnant with his child.
  • Chester Gillette "Carl Grahm": Grace Brown's murderer. He kills Grace by hitting her with a tennis racket to render her unconscious and drowns her in Big Moose Lake by tipping their boat over. No one suspects that it was him.
  • Pa (Michael Gokey): The father of Mattie, Lawton, Lou, Beth, and Abby. He is bitter and depressed from the loss of their mother. His French name is Michel Gauthier. He was beaten by his step father and still has many scars to prove it.
  • Lawton Gokey: The eldest of the Gokey family children. After getting in an argument with Pa, he left and hasn't been seen since.
  • Aleeta Smith: Weaver's mother. Loving and kind, she supports Weaver's wanting to go to Columbia.
  • Uncle Fifty: Mattie's uncle who is an alcoholic but is very kind. Sometimes he promises false things while he is drunk, and he travels around the world as a French river man who visits the Gokey family very rarely. He always brings great presents for every member in the family. He promises Mattie money for college but goes back on this promise and spends the money on alcohol and pleasure.
  • Awards

    Beside the British Carnegie, A Northern Light won the 2003 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature. The American Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) named it one of the year's Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults and it was a runner up for best book in that category, the Michael L. Printz Award.


    A Northern Light Wikipedia