This is my favorite book.
I don’t say that lightly because there are many, many books I have loved dearly. But if I could only read one book for the rest of my life and enjoy just as much every time I read it, this one would be it.
Title – A Northern Light
Author – Jennifer Donnelly
Page count – 383
The year is 1906. The place is the northern backwoods of New York state. And our narrator-heroine’s name is Mattie Gokey, a sixteen-year-old girl and talented writer who dreams of going to college but is faced with the reality of living in a single-parent household with too many mouths to feed. The chapters alternate between Mattie’s past, when her mother has just died, her brother run off, and she is stuck trying to attend school while helping her father and three younger sisters on the farm; and the present, when Mattie works for the summer at one of the lake’s hotels and discovers letters from a woman whose body is found drowned.
This book seems to have a little bit of everything – it’s historical fiction, a murder-mystery based on a true story, and an epistolary novel all wrapped up into a commentary on poverty, racism, marriage, family obligations, and good-old-fashioned gender role expectations. It is also a story filled with hope and justice and a promise of better things to come.
(In reference to the passage below, Emmie Hubbard is one of Mattie’s neighbors, and Tommy – Emmie’s oldest/twelve-year-old son – is asking Mattie if she thinks the county is going to split up his family.)
“Emmie Hubbard certainly was crazy, and I was pretty sure the county would take her one day… As I tried to figure out what I could say – to find words that weren’t a lie but weren’t quite the truth either – I thought that madness isn’t like they tell it in books. It isn’t Miss Havisham sitting in the ruins of her mansion… And it isn’t like in Jane Eyre, either, with Rochester’s wife banging around in the attic, shrieking and carrying on and frightening the help. When your mind goes, it’s not castles and cobwebs and silver candelabra. It’s dirty sheets and sour milk and dog shit on the floor. It’s Emmie cowering under her bed, crying and singing while her kids try to make soup from seed potatoes.” (p. 17)