Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

One thing I hate is being misled. I dislike picking up a book that promises to be thrilling and suspenseful and finding it to be dull without a single moment of suspense. I felt misled with this book since the back cover (at least on the edition I read) made it sound like the novel focused on the mystery behind a drowned body. However, barely even a third of the book focused on that part of the story and the rest was somewhat boring in my eyes.

This novel takes place in 1906 when times were tough, especially for a girl on a farm with no mother. Mattie Gokey is the oldest daughter of four and is forced to act as mother to the family, as well as son to her father who needs help on the farm. Mattie's dreams, though, lie in school and books, so being forced to work on the farm is the last thing she wants to do. She finds herself stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place when she gets into college with a full scholarship, but no way of going since her father won't fund the trip and needs her on the farm. Try as she might, she sees no way of making her dream for college come true and then a local boy (Royal) asks her to marry him and she realizes her life is destined to be on a farm. Mattie's life on the farm is the past while the drowned woman is the present and Mattie is working at a hotel when this happens (You don't find out why she's at the hotel until the last half of the book). The woman (Grace Brown) had given Mattie a set of letters to burn, but Mattie never had a chance and then the woman's dead body appeared. Curious, Mattie reads the letters and the mystery behind Grace and her companion swells.

To begin with, this book is depressing. It's probably the time period and how limiting the options were for people (not just women) and how sad it was to see people's dreams go up in smoke (not just Mattie's dreams either). But, like they say, those were the times. It wouldn't be realistic if it were rainbows and unicorns. As I read about Mattie, though, I couldn't help but be conflicted about how I felt for her. Part of me felt she was selfish to want to go to New York since her family needed her so badly but then there was the argument of why shouldn't she pursue her dreams. I honestly didn't know what stance to take on the character, especially since the former opinion fit with the times of the book while the latter opinion is much more modern. However, the book constantly focused on this struggle to make her dream come true and the repeated disappointment that it became tiresome. I honestly struggled to read the the first half of the book because it was so slow. To me the most interesting parts focused on Grace Brown's story and I think it could have been a much more captivating book if it had been about her. The author gave a note about the true story of Grace Brown which the book touches on. If she had continued the story from where Mattie left out, exploring further the letters, told Grace's story, it would have, in my eyes, been a more interesting novel, but that's not what this novel focused on and I should focus my judgment on what it was, not what it should be. To me, what it was was depressing and frustrating and sad.

Despite how the back of the book presents this novel as a murder mystery, this is really just a coming of age story for young Mattie Gokey as she faces the tug of war between her dreams and life's reality. If the novel had been presented that way I probably would have a more favorable review because I would have expected that more so than a murder mystery. When I'm misled, I have a hard time liking a book, especially when I'm already ambivalent about historical fiction and so much of this novel was about life back then. I know others who have enjoyed this novel but I'm just not one of them.

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