YA Friday: A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

Friday, June 10, 2011

Title: A Northern Light
Author: Jennifer Donnelly
Genre: YA, historical fiction
Publisher: Harcourt Children's Books, 2003
Source: Library

Mattie Gokey spends most of her time keeping her family together. After her mother passed away, it's been hard to keep food on the table and all her sisters healthy and clean. However, she dreams of books and writing, hoping to attend college. Her teacher and best friend both push her to pursue her dreams, but family responsibilities and a potential romance have her wondering where her path should lead. Set against the background of the murder featured in Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, Mattie is required to make life-changing decisions.

Oh, Jennifer Donnelly. How I love you. And I have the first book in your adult trilogy sitting on my bookshelf right now. I'm curious to see how she writes for adults, because her YA books definitely have me hooked. I think the element of her books that I enjoy most is just the intelligence she uses to weave everything together. Mattie's life is the center of the action, but surrounding it we have the murder, which in some ways parallels some of Mattie's insecurities, and the mysterious Emily Baxter, one of Donnelly's invented historical figures that I wish was real so I could read her poetry. (A similar invented historical character is Amade Malherbeau from Revolution).

Donnelly is a master at creating strong characters. Mattie was very distinct from Andi, the main character in Revolution. In my (ever humble) opinion, if a writer plans on using the first person all the time, their different characters had better have different voices. I think this can be a difficult task to accomplish, but Donnelly does it well, bringing to the table a girl less troubled than Andi, a girl determined to keep her promises while breaking under the desire to fulfill her own dreams. At times she frustrates me, spending time with a dorkus (using words like "dorkus" is probably one of the reasons bloggers get pegged as unprofessional, but no other word describes my feelings adequately) like Royal who waves away her dreams by talking about soil and planting. Mattie isn't perfect - she is a teenager, after all, and who didn't make at least one stupid mistake in their teenage years? However, as she struggles through her oppressive circumstances, she begins to discover who she really is. The other characters are also fantastic, especially Weaver, Mattie's best friend, a boy who will not accept discrimination from others, no matter what the consequence.

Another element of this book that I adored was the sheer bookishness. (Remember what I said yesterday about authors always putting bookish elements in their books? I think for Donnelly it is sheer love of books). Mattie loves words and tries to use a new word every day. I loved the way she turned big, obscure words to fit her situations. I also loved her description of Emily Baxter's library - who hasn't felt that way on their first time in a beautiful bookstore or library?

There were dozens of names I didn’t know. Eliot. Zola. Whitman. Wilde. Yeats. Sand. Dickinson. Goethe. And all those were in just one stack! There were lives in those books, and deaths. Families and friends and lovers and enemies. Joy and despair, jealousy, envy, madness, and rage. All there. […] I could alsmost hear the characters inside, murmuring and jostling, impatient for me to open the cover and let them out.
Much as I am gushing about Jennifer Donnelly, the book wasn't perfect. I struggled with the back-and-forth between Mattie's time at the hotel figuring out the murder, and her time at home trying to get to the hotel. I thought it was an interesting device, but I didn't understand the point and found it to be generally distracting. And while I liked Mattie herself a bit better than Andi in Revolution, this book didn't hold the same intensity and passion for me. It was a good book - a great book - but it didn't cause me to put down the book and just think when I was done with it.

All and all, though, this is an excellent read. The bookish will especially enjoy Mattie's obsession with words and her enchantment with new books.

4 stars

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...