Jennifer Donnelly

A Northern Light

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A Northern Light Summary

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A Northern Light (2003) is a work of historical fiction for young adults by British writer Jennifer Donnelly. Set in 1906 in Herkimer County, New York, it is backgrounded in the famous murder case of Grace Brown, as its fictional protagonist, Mattie Gokey, prepares for life after high school. The novel is well known for its rich characterization of adolescent life in America at the turn of the twentieth century.

The novel begins by contextualizing Mattie Gokey’s life in northern New York. Herkimer County is nestled in the Adirondack Mountains, known also as the “North Woods.” Mattie, the eldest of four sisters, lives on a farm with Abby, Lou, Beth, and their father. The girls’ mother passed away when they were young, and their brother, Lawton, recently ran away after a fight with their father. Mattie spends her free time reading copiously and frequently expands her vocabulary by referring to her dictionary. She is best friends with Weaver Smith, an African-American boy who has a similar level of intelligence and motivation to succeed in life.

When Weaver comes upon a notebook full of Mattie’s writing, he shows it to their teacher, Miss Wilcox. Miss Wilcox convinces Mattie to apply to Barnard College at Columbia University in New York City. To Mattie’s shock, she is accepted on a full scholarship. However, she cannot afford the price of travel to the city or her high textbook fees. She also knows that she is sorely needed to help maintain the farm. Mattie works at The Glenmore hotel on a nearby lake, where the body of Grace Brown is discovered. Just weeks earlier, Grace had given Mattie a bundle of letters and asked her to burn them. She reads the letters in short vignettes throughout the story, learning about the life and fate of the unfortunate girl.

While Mattie deliberates about how to proceed with her life after high school, she gets to know Miss Wilcox closely. She finds out that her teacher writes feminist poems in secret, participating in a genre that is considered both radical and superficial in the 1900s. Acutely aware of the lack of women’s rights in a supposedly modern age, Miss Wilcox is deeply invested in the subject in her writing. As people learn about her writing, she is increasingly ostracized by the people of Herkimer County. Nevertheless, she persists, motivating Mattie to keep writing as well.

Mattie decides not to dash her dreams of going to college too soon. Before dying, her mother had made her swear to seek knowledge throughout her life; she decides to honor the commitment. To save up money, she cleans the house of her rich aunt, Josie, hoping that she will pay her enough to make it to college. When Josie finds out that Mattie is saving for college, she condemns her effort to leave her family and refuses to pay her for her work. Meanwhile, Royal Loomis, a classmate develops a crush on Mattie. Though she likes him as well, she rejects him, believing that he doesn’t truly understand her. Nevertheless, she begins to idealize him, comparing him to the heroic characters in books she loves. On her seventeenth birthday, he mistakenly gifts her a cookbook, which offends Mattie because she perceives it as an appeal to female stereotypes. After he proposes to her, she is further devastated to find that he was only courting her because he wants a share in the land where her farm is built.

Weaver’s house is set on fire by a group of racist arsonists, the same group that physically assaulted him when he was at the train station days before. They steal all of the cash that he had saved for college. Emmie Hubbard, Mattie’s neighbor, decides to take in Weaver’s mother, Aleeta. The companionship helps lift Emmie out of depression and gives her the resources to work on a business to make enough money to end her poverty. Meanwhile, Emmie carries on an affair with Frank Loomis, Royal’s father. Royal is angry at the Hubbard family because he feels his father has abandoned him and his mother.

At the end of the novel, Mattie gathers up the courage to leave Herkimer County to go to Barnard College in New York City. She leaves covertly one fall morning, only telling Weaver beforehand. She composes three messages that she leaves behind, addressed to Royal, her father, and Weaver’s mother. She gives her father two dollars and promises to stay in contact. She gives Royal the ring that he gifted her during his false proposal. She gives Weaver’s mother the money to pay for Emmie’s tax bill, along with money for Weaver to buy a train ticket to school. Weaver laments Mattie’s departure but accepts that she is leaving out of a hope for a better life. Mattie overcomes feelings of tremendous guilt and selfishness to claim her well-deserved education. Finally, she releases Grace Brown’s letters to the public as a gesture of peace for her deceased friend, whose story would otherwise be left in the dark.

As Mattie departs Herkimer, she reflects on the notion that the North Woods will soon be only a memory. This journey from adolescence to the frontier just beyond it is central to Donnelly’s commentary on the uncertainty young women experienced in an era of mounting pressure leading up to the Equal Rights Amendment.