I'm in a book club with my sisters-in-law, and we met this week along with my teenage daughter (after all, it was her book). We discussed Jennifer Donnelly's A Northern Light. Described as a young adult novel (I had actually bought it for my daughter who told me to read it), we all agreed that it wasn't exclusively for a young adult audience. Barbara said it best: "I'm glad there are great books like this out there for young women to read." We all enjoyed reading the book, and the discussion about it was lively.
Set in 1906, the story revolves around an event that happened in real life. The same murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy is the backdrop of the action in this story. The main character, Mattie, is a young girl who knows something about the death of a young woman that no one else knows. She has to decide what to do about it and what to do about her life.
The characters that Donnelly develops read as if they are real people. They have good points and bad. Mattie makes mistakes, gets angry, feels overwhelmed, and often doesn't know what to do.
We talked about how the time and place of this story were also compelling. A simpler time, but also a harder time to get by in life. Yet, people had time to care for their neighbors, accept their foibles, and feel empathy for their problems. We don't know our neighbors in many instances today. We agreed that today people rely on public services to take the place of caring for our neighbors, and we wondered what we've lost as a society because of that.
Some thought it was a more innocent time, but others thought that the harsh realities of life and the daily struggles to care for one's family left little innocence.
Throughout the story, Mattie is torn between keeping promises that she's made and doing what she knows is right for her. The reader is right there with her as she deals with the attentions of a handsome boy, helps her best friend through the delivery of her twins, nurses her family through a life-threatening illnes, and becomes aware of other possibilities for her future.
Donnelly stays true to her young narrator throughout the book--the decisions that Mattie makes are quite believable. She makes hard decisions in ways that a young person would. She wraps things up to the best of her ability, but she knows that many things are left unfinished, and that she can't fix everything.
A Northern Light is a memorable read with strong characters that stay with you. I actually read the book several months before choosing it for book club. I had every intention of re-reading it so it would be fresh in my mind for our discussion, but I didn't get the chance. A quick refresher from my daughter on the names brought it all back to me, and I found that the characters were still there in my mind. I can honestly say that is not the case for all books I read.