Wednesday, June 8, 2011

More Than This Provincial Life

First, I'd like to apologize for my long absence. I've spent the last few weeks packing everything I own, moving 450 miles from Chicago home to Pittsburgh, and settling into the new apartment. For much of that time, I've been without Internet, so I'm only just now getting to write about the following book. I am also currently without a library card, having just moved, so posts may be sporadic for the next few weeks.

A Northern Light
by Jennifer Donnelly
Carnegie Medal 2003, Printz Honor Book 2004

In her small turn-of-the-century upstate New York town, Mattie Gokey is considered a bit peculiar. Along with her best friend, Weaver, she continues to attend the town schoolhouse daily, despite being sixteen, in the hopes of receiving her diploma and attending Barnard College. With her mother recently deceased, however, as the oldest child Mattie is expected to tend to her father's farm and her younger sisters. College, and the life it could bring, is a distant dream.

While working a summer job at a neighbouring hotel, the Glenmore, Mattie finds herself embroiled in a murder case, as she is the recipient of a number of letters the victim had written. Despite having been asked to burn the letters by the victim prior to her death, Mattie keeps them, slowly unraveling the motive of the murder.

The book tends to be marketed as a mystery due to the subplot involving the Grace Brown murder, but I would categorize it as an historical slice-of-life novel, as the focus throughout is on Mattie and the various events occuring around her. Those expecting a whodunit mystery will be rather disappointed here.

I felt that Ms. Donnelly did a wonderful job in conveying what ordinary life was like in rural New York in the early 1900's, from detailing mundane farm chores to the attitudes of the day concerning feminism and racial prejudice.  Her meticulous research is not just apparent from the lengthy bibliography in the back of the book, but from the quality and accuracy of the writing itself, which is somewhat rare, even in historical fiction.

More than anything, this book appealed to me because I liked the character of Mattie so much.  I could very easily relate to her, as I was always the odd one with my nose in a book, dreaming of distant locales more interesting than my own, and I thought the "word of the day" chapter headings were a fantastic touch, given Mattie's obsession with vocabulary and writing.  I do have to wonder, though, if the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast had any influence over Ms. Donnelly's writing, as Mattie often reminded me of Belle, just as her love interest, Royal, was a somewhat less chauvinistic Gaston.

Grade: A

1 comment:

  1. I've been wanting to read this one for a while now - I hear nothing but good things about it. Have you read Donnelly's "Revolution"? It's another great read.