A Northern Light — Review by Carole

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.


Chris said...

Carole, I think adults need to go beyond "their" area of the library for books.

So many "young adult" books are very worthy reads, such as A Northern Light.

I just finished one I plan to blog about, The Looking Glass Wars. Had I not read a review for the book, I most likely would never have encountered it.

Another great "children's" book is The Phantom Tollbooth, which is written on so many different levels, it can easily and enjoyably be read by those ages 8 to 80+.

Corinne said...

I thought that this book was a great story. I enjoyed reading it as a teenager, and was thrilled that it was enjoyed by adults as well. Another book I would recomend to both teens and adults is Full Tilt. It is a fast read, I personally finished in just one day, and it is also a really interesting story. It goes inside the minds of a group of teenagers, focusing on one in particular, at the same times shows his connection to his friends and family, and to the tragidy that took place early in his life. I loved the book, and I think anyone else would enjoy reading it too.

Bob C. said...

I learned a good lesson by reading this book. For some reason, I skipped my usual practice of reading the dust cover and everything else that precedes the actual story. Consequently, I not only enjoyed the book, which was a mystery set in an era of hard times, but got a nice surprise after finishing it when I learned that the story was based on actual events and people. The author blended in the fictional account and characters very well with the actual facts of the murder case. While the end was no surprise, I thought the interspersed introduction throughout the book of the victim's letters, which led the reader to the conclusion that a murder had taken place, was a good device to keep the mystery in mind while other story plots concerning the family and small community were being told.

Apart from the story line, the book provided a kind of history lesson about a time when a job was hard to come by and when workers were subject to harsh discipline and even abuse.