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A northern light
Book
2003
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Trade Reviews

  Booklist Review

Gr. 10-12. Donnelly's first YA novel begins with high drama drawn straight from history: Grace Brown's body is discovered, and her murder, which also inspired Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, is the framework for this ambitious, beautifully written coming-of-age story set in upstate New York in 1906. Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey is a waitress at the Glenmore Hotel when Brown is murdered. As she learns Brown's story, her narrative shifts between the goings-on at the hotel and her previous year at home: her toil at the farm; her relationship with her harsh, remote father; her pain at being forbidden to accept a college scholarship. "Plain and bookish," Mattie is thrilled about, but wary of, a handsome neighbor's attentions, and she wonders if she must give up her dream of writing if she marries. In an intelligent, colloquial voice that speaks with a writer's love of language and an observant eye, Mattie details the physical particulars of people's lives as well as deeper issues of race, class, and gender as she strains against family and societal limitations. Donnelly adds a crowd of intriguing, well-drawn secondary characters whose stories help Mattie define her own desires and sense of self. Many teens will connect with Mattie's deep yearning for independence and for stories, like her own, that are frank, messy, complicated, and inspiring. GillianEngberg.

  Kirkus Review

Donnelly combines a mystery with a coming-of-age story about a girl choosing among family obligations, romance, and education. The mystery derives from a true event, the death in 1906 of a young woman in northern New York. In this fictional rendition, 16-year-old farm girl Mattie Gokey is working for the summer at the hotel where the murdered woman has been staying and has given Mattie letters to burn. As the details emerge about the possible murder, Mattie struggles with whether to burn the letters or turn them over to the police. She also wrestles with a deathbed promise to her mother to stay and raise her younger siblings. Mattie, who loves language and excels at creative writing, longs to go to New York City for college, encouraged by a feminist schoolteacher. The story's structure reflects the two promises at issue, with chapters narrated in present tense set at the hotel during the summer and chapters in past tense set during the preceding year when her mother died. The chapters from the past take their headings from new words Mattie is learning from her dictionary, a device that grows a bit tedious, as do the myriad details about the farming life. Issues about racism and women's rights are more deftly woven into the action. While tighter writing would have enhanced the work, this is nevertheless an absorbing story that will appeal strongly to the growing number of historical fiction fans. (Historical fiction. 12+) Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Summary
Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey has a word for everything, and big dreams but little hope of seeing them come true. 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.Desperate for money, she takes a job at the Glenmore, where hotel guest Grace Brown entrusts her with the task of burning a secret bundle of letters. But when Grace's drowned body is fished from Big Moose Lake, Mattie discovers that the letters could reveal the grim truth behind a murder.Set in 1906 in the Adirondack Mountains, against the backdrop of the murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, this Printz Honor-winning coming-of-age novel effortlessly weaves romance, history, and a murder mystery into something moving, and real, and wholly original.
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