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A Northern Light, Jennifer Donnelly

2010/07/27

This historical young adult novel is set against the backdrop of the events which inspired Theodire Dreisel’s “An American Tragedy.” Matilda “Mattie” Gokey is the eldest of four sisters, and at sixteen, is responsible for their household which also includes a grieving father and a lazy old dog. Keeping track of her three sisters and keeping food on the table is challenging enough without their father’s stubborn insistence on making the farm successful. Mattie’s brother Lawson left the family when he was sixteen, and their father is bitter and angry at only having daughters left. Still, despite this harsh environment, Mattie revels in school and hopes to go away to college in New York. Part of her plan is to work at the Glenmore, a nearby hotel, in order to make money, and after finally convincing her father to let her go, Mattie finds herself caught up in the drama surrounding the discovery of Grace Brown’s body. And Mattie is the only one who really knows what might have happened, since Grace entrusted her with letters, instructing her to burn them.

This is a fast-paced, intriguing novel. I enjoyed the fact that it would encourage readers to also check out Dreisel’s novel, the film, and other books about the case. The book is well-researched, and takes many quotes from Brown’s letters. Secondary characters, such as the black boy Weaver who fights against racism, and the poet Emily Wilcox who is hiding from her husband, add to the setting of the story and help explain the society in which Mattie lives. An excellent selection for historical fiction.

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