Friday, December 3, 2021

Review: A NORTHERN LIGHT by Jennifer Donnelly


Rating: 4/5 stars

A Northern Light pleasantly surprised me. I am always on the search for historical fiction that actually engages me. I tend to dislike traditional historical fiction novels, ones about war-torn Europe or generic medieval stories, so I’m always iffy when I start reading any sort of historical novel. But this one was actually good. It’s a historical coming-of-age story combined with a murder mystery based on a true story. 

I knew on page three that I was going to like this book. The writing style just really spoke to me and I had a good feeling about it.

“What had I seen? Too much. What did I know? Only that knowledge carries a damned high price.”

I’ve owned this book for ten years. I remember buying it on sale at Half-Price Books for two dollars back in high school, and it took me all these years to finally read it (I own way too many books; send help). 

One thing I loved about this book was that Mattie learns a new word every day and then tries to use that word during that day. I learned a few new words myself during my time reading this story, which I loved. It lends an unexpected intellectual quality to the novel. This is a smart book, and we need more smart books in young adult literature. 

A huge portion of the story, probably like 85%, does not revolve around the plot laid out in the synopsis. The book’s description only tells of Mattie trying to solve the murder mystery, but that is such a minor part of the story. We follow Mattie’s day-to-day life during her last year of schooling and we learn about her relationship with her father and sisters, her friendship with other kids in her town, and her desires post-graduation. We see Mattie working on her family’s farm, going to school, talking with her siblings and friends, learning new words, courting a boy, arguing with her father, etc. 

I honestly felt like this book was trying to do too much. Just telling Mattie’s story would have been enough, or just telling the murder mystery would have been enough, but trying to combine both those stories while also adding in narratives surrounding gender struggles, racial struggles, poverty struggles, and so much more made the book feel a little overwhelming at times. But I also appreciated what Jennifer Donnelly was trying to do here. 

Normally I don’t prefer to read stories that deal with social issues because I like escapism reads, but this novel handled it all in such a way that I didn’t mind, and I actually felt for our characters, specifically Mattie. She struggles with the expectations of womanhood in the early 1900s. She wants to write and have a career while also having a family, but she knows the two are mutually exclusive because of her gender. So will she give up her passion for her family, or give in to loneliness for her passion? It was almost heartbreaking because I know so much gender inequality existed at that time and still exists today and affects so many women who could have done much more extraordinary things with their lives but because of the restraints of society were weighed down with unwanted expectations. 

“I knew in my bones that Emily Dickinson wouldn’t have written even one poem if she’d had two howling babies, a husband bent on jamming another one into her, a house to run, a garden to tend, three cows to milk, twenty chickens to feed, and four hired hands to cook for. I knew then why they didn’t marry. Emily and Jane and Louisa. I knew and it scared me. I also knew what being lonely was and I didn’t want to be lonely my whole life. I didn’t want to give up my words. I didn’t want to choose one over the other. Mark Twain didn’t have to. Charles Dickens didn’t. And John Milton didn’t, either.

I did enjoy the entire book, but I also wish more of the narrative had been focused on the plotline involving Mattie trying to uncover the mystery behind Grace’s disappearance and murder after Grace gave Mattie a stack of her correspondences. That part seemed really intriguing to me, and that’s the part based on a true story. 

A Northern Light is told in a nonlinear timeline, with Grace Brown being found dead at the Glenmore in the beginning, and then going back in time to tell about Mattie’s life before she started working at the Glenmore, and it jumps back and forth between these two timelines until they meet up at the end of the book. I understand why Donnelly wrote in this way, so that we can see Grace Brown’s letters interspersed throughout the story instead of all together at the end, but I think for clarity’s sake it would have been better to write all the events in chronological order as I was a little confused at the beginning. 

I absolutely loved the writing style in this story. Donnelly writes with evocative imagery and elegant descriptions. There were so many sentences when I had to stop and marvel at the beauty of her writing. The book is also hilarious. Mattie is SO relatable that her observations about life and womanhood are humorous and actually made me laugh out loud at times because of how realistic she is. 

I really enjoyed A Northern Light and I would definitely recommend it. It’s an older book now, but it’s still so worth the read. If you’re skeptical of historical fiction like I am, read this for the heartbreaking mystery, or the ill-fated romance, or the relatable protagonist who made me feel so seen that I almost cried. Or just read it for the gorgeous prose. But make sure you add it to your list because this isn’t a book to be missed. 

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