Mattie dreams of being a writer, filling notebooks when she can get them and choosing words of the day to expand her vocabulary, but since her mother died and her brother left she’s been more like a housekeeper to her father and three younger sisters. She longs to move to New York and make a go of her talents at Barnard College, so she starts slowly saving for the day when she can escape her rural life. She takes a job at the Glanmore, a fancy hotel for tourists, to get enough money to go, but her attention is distracted when she discovers an unsettling truth about a capsized boat and a death that once looked innocent.
Told back and forth over two different time periods in Mattie’s life, Mattie’s story quickly gains suspense while retaining its literary bent. I loved the fact that each chapter has a word before it and the author works the word into the story over the course of the chapter. Mattie herself loves reading and adores writing, and she’s supported in that by her school teacher, who firmly believes that she can make something more of herself than becoming a simple farm wife. Mattie is torn between her ambitions and the attention paid to her by a handsome local, which adds another dimension to the story as she struggles with immediate infatuation and long-term dreams and desires.
I also just loved the setting. In rural New England, life is not easy, and Mattie’s father and uncle experience all the risks of a country life. Mattie herself endures the hardships of it, with backbreaking work constantly and reluctant days missed off school – which she adores – to help out around the farm. But there’s also a beauty to it which shone through in Donnelly’s writing, really rounding out the book. I got such a feel for the time period that I immediately wondered why more books aren’t set in early twentieth century New England; it’s in such stark contrast to the rest of the nation.
Finally, there was the suspense of the murder, and the slow reveal of precisely what happened and why. We begin to understand why Mattie holds the secret, what she fears, and this laces the entire book together as it heads toward its conclusion, both towards her decision for her future and the final discovery of why a girl drowned in the lake. It was surprisingly gripping at times and I got through it very quickly. Mattie’s character, despite her fervent desire for independence, was completely believable and I appreciated both her literary mind and her romantic impulses. She felt like a real teenager and I was anxious for her to make what I considered the right choice.
A Northern Light is a beautiful and enthralling book, with a main character to root for, a fantastic setting, and a curious and heartbreaking mystery. This is the kind of book teens should be reading, and I would have loved it even more had I been one.
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