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A Northern Light Hardcover – April 1, 2003

4.3 out of 5 stars 299 customer reviews

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It's 1906 and 16-year-old Mattie Gokey is at a crossroads in her life. She's escaped the overwhelming responsibilities of helping to run her father's brokedown farm in exchange for a paid summer job as a serving girl at a fancy hotel in the Adirondacks. She's saving as much of her salary as she can, but she's having trouble deciding how she's going to use the money at the end of the summer. Mattie's gift is for writing and she's been accepted to Barnard College in New York City, but she's held back by her sense of responsibility to her family--and by her budding romance with handsome-but-dull Royal Loomis. Royal awakens feelings in Mattie that she doesn't want to ignore, but she can't deny her passion for words and her desire to write.

At the hotel, Mattie gets caught up in the disappearance of a young couple who had gone out together in a rowboat. Mattie spoke with the young woman, Grace Brown, just before the fateful boating trip, when Grace gave her a packet of love letters and asked her to burn them. When Grace is found drowned, Mattie reads the letters and finds that she holds the key to unraveling the girl's death and her beau's mysterious disappearance. Grace Brown's story is a true one (it's the same story told in Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy and in the film adaptation, A Place in the Sun), and author Jennifer Donnelly masterfully interweaves the real-life story with Mattie's, making her seem even more real.

Mattie's frank voice reveals much about poverty, racism, and feminism at the turn of the twentieth century. She witnesses illness and death at a range far closer than most teens do today, and she's there when her best friend Minnie gives birth to twins. Mattie describes Minnie's harrowing labor with gut-wrenching clarity, and a visit with Minnie and the twins a few weeks later dispels any romance from the reality of young motherhood (and marriage). Overall, readers will get a taste of how bitter--and how sweet--ordinary life in the early 1900s could be. Despite the wide variety of troubles Mattie describes, the book never feels melodramatic, just heartbreakingly real. (14 and older) --Jennifer Lindsay

From School Library Journal

Grade 8 Up-Mattie Gokey, 16, a talented writer, promised her dying mother that she would always take care of her father and younger siblings. She is stuck on a farm, living in near poverty, with no way of escaping, even though she has been accepted at Barnard College. She promises to marry handsome Royal Loomis even though he doesn't appear to love her. Now, Mattie has promised Grace Brown, a guest at the Adirondack summer resort where she works, to burn two bundles of letters. Then, before she can comply, Grace's body is found in the lake, and the young man who was with her disappears, also presumably drowned. This is a breathtaking tale, complex and often earthy, wrapped around a true story. In 1906, Grace Brown was killed by Chester Gillette because she was poor and pregnant, and he hoped to make his fortune by marrying a rich, society girl. Grace's story weaves its way through Mattie's, staying in the background but providing impetus. The protagonist tells her tale through flashback and time shifts from past to present. Readers feel her fears for her friend Weaver-the first freeborn child in his family-when he is beaten for being black and his college savings are stolen, and enjoy their love of words as they engage in language duels. Finally, they'll experience her awakening when she realizes that she cannot live her life for others. Donnelly's characters ring true to life, and the meticulously described setting forms a vivid backdrop to this finely crafted story. An outstanding choice for historical-fiction fans, particularly those who have read Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy.
Lisa Prolman, Greenfield Public Library, MA
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Series: Michael L. Printz Honor Book (Awards)
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Harcourt Children's Books; 1 edition (April 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0152167056
  • ISBN-13: 978-0152167059
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (299 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,266,019 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By E. R. Bird HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on October 16, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Sometimes when authors place fictional characters in the company of real historical figures the result is laughable or strained. Too often a child figure will suddenly find his or herself in the presence of (oh say) Abraham Lincoln and will teach the great man about following his childlike instincts or some other such goo. This is not to say that historical figures and situations are at odds with children's literature. I just want to make it clear that it's rare to find a really clever and believable situation in which the real and the unreal mix. "A Northern Light" is one such rarity.

In this book, heroine Mattie Gorkey lives two different narratives. In one story, she's working at a fancy hotel in the Northern Woods in 1906. A young woman vacationing at the hotel was recently discovered drowned in a nearby lake. Weighing on Mattie's conscience is the fact that just the day before the girl had entrusted her letters to our heroine with strict instructions that they be burned. Mattie has not burned them yet. The second narrative takes place several months before the exciting events at the hotel. Here we learn far more about Mattie's background and her love of literature and writing. With a mother recently dead and a family of five to care for, Mattie's great dream is to attend Barnard College in New York. Unfortunately, her pa is anything but receptive to the idea and there's a cute boy hanging around who seems to be giving Mattie quite a bit of attention. Focusing on her own dilemmas with the caring but somewhat close minded society in which she lives, Mat must figure out who she is and what is most important to her in the end.
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Format: Hardcover
This is one of those books where about a third of the way through, you anxiously thumb the remaining pages, knowing that despite your best efforts to savor it, the book will be over all too soon. When A NORTHERN LIGHT falls open, you,the reader, will fall in. Descriptions of this book by previous reviewers, while excellent and accurate, still do not prepare you for the sheer delight and pleasure of reading this story. While it has been classified as a Young Adult novel, as it does contain some language and situations, every word is absolutely true to the character who is speaking or being spoken of. I urge every teenage girl to read this, then pass it on to her mother, all of her girlfriends, aunts, a favorite teacher--in short, anyone who has a love of words, of learning, of mysteries, and a belief in the power of young women. A NORTHERN LIGHT is a most extraordinary book. Don't miss it!
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Format: Hardcover
This book is full of heart and wit. Though packed with details from a fascinating period and place, it follows a dramatic story that has contemporary resonance. In the context of a mystery story, A Northern Light captures that difficult moment in growing up when one is presented with choices that have broad consequences and no easy solutions. I found the book impossible to put down. I read it in one sitting - until two in the morning. Then I bought more copies (wanted to keep mine!) and gave them to my daughter (age 15) and my brother (age 35). Both of them found it compelling as well. I saw my daughter reading it as she walked home from school, and it was with many protests that she stopped reading long enough to finish her homework that evening. We have since had several interesting discussions about growing up, falling in love, doing the right thing, and finding the moxie to pursue a dream. Highest recommendation!
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Jennifer Donnelly's 'A Northern Light' (as it was released in the USA) is the very same book. Don't make the same mistake I did and order the UK version which is titled 'A Gathering Light' instead.

Either way though, it's one of the best books I have ever read. I am not a fan of novels set in the past but this was one exception that blew my mind! Mattie is the most endearing character, and the level of mystery is just enough to keep one fully entrenched in this novel to its finale. This is a true weekend escape in novel form!
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Matty Gokey is the sixteen year old narrator of this novel. With the 1906 murder of Grace Brown (also covered in Dreiser's "An American Tragedy) setting the stage for this tale that ultimately explores not only Graces murder, but the issues of poverty, racism, pregnancy, the perceived station of women in society, and the effects of death/loss on the human spirit.

Matty's possesses a love of words, a discerning eye, and a compulsion to write. Her hunger for more education and a life away from the rural North Woods area where she lives is weighed against her conscience and the question of whether she is obligated to fulfill two promises she made.

An excellent story that interweaves Mattys story with Graces story and gives us a picture of life in an era alien to our modern one, yet brimming with characters and events we can all relate to.

A definite winner!!!
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Format: Hardcover
I finished A Northern Light in a weekend; what a pleasure! I don't fit the intended young adult demographic, but I've always had an interest in children's and young adult literature as a result of my many careers.
Ms. Donnelly brilliantly captures the boom era of the 1900s New York Adirondack Mountain region. The story of Mattie Gokey, a young woman coming of age and struggling with difficult life choices, is a familiar story to most female readers. Her determination to become a writer reminded me of my own career aspirations. I found myself holding my breath and sighing with relief when Maddie finally decided her fate.

A Northern Light will stir passion, and even raise ire, among the young women who are fortunate to discover this beautiful book. Many readers will recognize themselves in Mattie, her teacher, Miss Wilcox, or even Weaver, her friend and fellow wordsmith. Most importantly, A Northern Light can be appreciated by readers of all ages, not just young adults, who appreciate great writing. A truly enjoyable read; I hope there's a sequel on the way.
Also recommended: The Lightkeeper's Daughter, Witch Child
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