A Northern Light

by Jennifer Donnelly

Mattie Gokey is a collector of words and a writer of stories. But she buried her... read more

Mattie Gokey is a collector of words and a writer of stories. But she buried her dream of going to college and becoming a published writer beneath a promise to her dying mother that she would stay on their small farm in upstate New York to care for her siblings and father. That promise weighs like a burden as Mattie graduates from high school in 1906 and earns a scholarship to a college in New York City. She feels guilty for thinking about leaving and angry that her father forbids her to go. When Mattie gets a summer job at one of the nearby resorts that caters to rich New York clientele, she has a chance encounter that refocuses her determination to set her own future course. Mattie meets Grace Brown only briefly, offering the obviously distressed young woman a glass of lemonade in the minutes before Grace joins her companion for a canoe trip on the lake. Before leaving, Grace thrusts a packet of letters in Mattie’s hands, imploring her to burn them. But before Mattie can act on that request, Grace’s body is found in the lake, a victim of drowning, or so it seems. As Mattie considers the unusual actions of both Grace and her male companion, she begins to suspect there is more to Grace’s tragic death. Compelled to read Grace’s letters, she finds the young woman’s situation was untenable and the actions of her supposed fiancé deplorable. From Grace and for Grace, Mattie finds the courage to see her life in a new light and take the first steps toward following her dreams. Jennifer Donnelly has created a compelling and thought-provoking literary work, finely plotted and exquisitely written. Strong dialogue and well-drawn characters make the details of everyday life for Mattie and others in her community come alive. Through Mattie, Grace, and other characters, including Mattie’s best friend, who is African American, and an extraordinary female teacher, Donnelly explores the limitations of class, race, and especially gender in that earlier era. An author’s note provides readers with historical information about the real Grace Brown, a young woman who was found dead in Big Moose Lake, New York, in the summer of 1906. This extraordinary novel weaves that real-life tragedy with Mattie’s fictional coming of age story. Co-winner, CCBC Printz Award Discussion (Ages 13–18)

© Cooperative Children's Book Center, Univ. of Wisconsin - Madison, 2004

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