A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

October 10, 2013

northern light Plot summary (from the publisher): It is 1906 and Mattie Gokey is trying to learn how to stand up like a man — even though she’s a sixteen-year-old girl. At her summer job at a resort on Big Moose Lake in the Adirondack mountains, she will earn enough money to make something of her life.

That money could be a dowry to wed the handsome but dull Royal Loomis. It could save her father’s brokeback farm. Or it might buy her a train ticket to New York City and college and a life that she can barely allow herself to imagine.

But Mattie’s worries and plans are cast into a cold light when the drowned body of Grace Brown turns up – a young woman who gave Mattie a packet of love letters, letters that convince Mattie that the drowning was no accident.

Inspired by the sensational Chester Gillette murder case of 1906, which was also the basis for Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and the film A Place in the Sun, this story evokes novels such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Little Women, and other classics that hark back to times of lost innocence.

Warning: Spoilers below!


  • Mattie was a great character, IMO. She was strong and smart, but not perfect or invincible. And although she acted a bit more mature than a 17-year-old, the maturity was believable given her circumstances (having to step in as “woman of the house” after her mother died).
  • Mattie and Weaver’s friendship was a fun component of the novel. I enjoyed their word duels and thought they supported each other’s life goals very well.
  • Although the inspirational teacher was a bit of a cliche, I still liked her. That plot line could have been a real drag on the book as a whole, but Donnelly didn’t overemphasize it to the point of exasperation.
  • I loved all the stuff about Chester Gillette and Grace Brown. I just wish there was a lot more of it!


  • I didn’t like anything about Mattie’s potential romance with Royal Loomis. I get that the author threw that in there to show that Mattie didn’t want to settle into a traditional female role, but I think the point could have been made just as well without the Royal character.
  • Mattie’s father was unnecessarily hard on her. There was really no reason or excuse for his behavior, and his character arc didn’t progress far enough for my tastes. I would have liked to have seen him acknowledge Mattie’s abilities and accomplishments a little more openly by the end of the book.
  • The stuff about the chauvinistic, sexist pig at Table Six at the hotel didn’t do much for me. Perhaps that was an attempt to bring some humor and/or levity to the book, but I thought it was a waste of time.


I like to pick up Young Adult/coming-of-age books every once in a while because they generally tend to be quick reads and occasionally contain interesting characters and stories. I originally picked up A Northern Light because of its connection to the Chester Gillette case, but ended up sticking with it because of Mattie. I give this one 4 stars out of 5.

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