Let me start this post by saying that this is such a beautiful book. The setting, the plot, the characters, the prose. Most especially the prose. But let me backtrack a little and try to compose an intelligible summary (operative word is TRY).
A Northern Light weaves fiction with reality where the real and tragic drowning of Grace Brown in the early 1900s is intertwined with the fictional life of Mathilda “Mattie” Gokey. Mattie is 16 years old and she has big dreams of becoming a famous writer someday. However, she knows it will be difficult to pursue her dreams as she has to fend for herself and her family after her mother died. She decides to work at a hotel where she meets Grace Brown who asks her to burn a bundle of letters. Later, the dead body of Grace is found on the lake and Mattie discovers through the letters that Grace did not die of accident but was actually murdered.
Mattie narrates the story through her own point of view and the time frame shifts between two scenarios: the present, when she is at Glenmore Hotel and meets Grace Brown, and the past, when she is at their house in Eagle Bay working on the farm with her father and taking care of her three sisters, Abby, Beth, and Lou. The shifts between the two time frames can be confusing at first but you get the hang of it as soon as you go along.
There are lots of things that I like in A Northern Light. The murder of Grace Brown, although not taking many pages in the story, provides a strong resolution for Mattie’s character. I love it that this piece of historical fact does not appear forced but gives enough backdrop for the life of Mattie. The characters are all relevant and interesting as well. Mattie’s sisters alone has provided ample interest, Weaver and his word duels with Mattie, Royal Loomis and his seemingly unbelievable attraction to “plain, bookish” Mattie, Miss Emily Wilcox and her strong resolve for Mattie to pursue college education in New York City, Emily Hubbard and her family and their apparent poverty, the strict but secretly affectionate Cook, Uncle Fifty and his promises and gifts, and even the hard-headed mule, Pleasant.
One has got to be interested in history to better appreciate the story. The setting is the Northern New York in the early 1900s where people mostly rely on farming and cattle-growing as their main source of income and the only a select few can afford to drive cars. It is also the time when women do not enjoy the freedom they have these days and racism against African-Americans is still strong.
Mattie as the protagonist is an interesting character. She is intelligent as she is hard-working. And she is as real as any 16-year old can be, with her own share of young love and insecurities. What is striking about her character is her passion for words and writing. She loves learning new words everyday and tries to incorporate these words into her narrative. I especially love the scene where she goes to the house of Miss Emily and enters the library. I can just imagine her reaction at seeing all those piles of books surrounding her and I just know that I will react the same way had I been in her place. Also, the scene where she buys her own composition notebook is especially close to my heart. I love collecting notebooks too and I get easily excited at the sight of beautiful paper and pens. Oh, but I am so alike Mattie with respect to love of books and papers and pens. 😀
A Northern Light is very easy to read despite the number of characters involved. It is a poignant story of love and hope and of living one’s life as one wants it despite all the odds.
“I take her hand. It is smooth and cold. I know it is a bad thing to break a promise, but I think now that it is a worse thing to let a promise break you.”
My copy: print, published by Harcourt. A Christmas gift from one of my most favorite bookish friends from TFG, MARIA! (Do read this soon!)