Sunday, June 16, 2013
AudioBook Review: A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
Title: A Northern Light
Author: Jennifer Donnelly
Read By: Hope Davis
Rating: 5 Stars
A Northern Light is one of those books you come across every few years; the type of novel that buries itself in your heart from the first page and simply lingers in your thoughts for days, weeks, and even months afterward. Although I've probably read at least two books and three novellas since I set this story down, it has still been in the forefront of my thoughts. I will likely tell my parents to yell at Jennifer Donnelly if they want someone to blame for my bad grades and sleepless nights. After all, how could I have done anything with my life until I knew what happened in Mattie's? And now how can I possible continue do anything without her voice by my side? It's the cruelest kind of paradox, one that only arrives when you love a protagonist as much as this one. Without a doubt, A Northern Light is very possibly the best book I've read - and will read - this year.
Prior to having read A Northern Light, the only Donnelly novel I'd read was Revolution, which made me sit up till 3 AM wracked with sobs while I finished the book. Now, let me tell you, that was not a fun reading experience. I had swollen cheeks, red eyes, and an aching heart by the end of it. Needless to say, I more-or-less swore off of Donnelly after that. Any author whose words had that type of power over me was dangerous. Quite thankfully, though, a lovely review convinced me to pick this one up and I'm so very glad I did. A Northern Light is a quiet, unassuming sort of tale, one that is filled with courage and strength and hope instead of despair and death and loss. It isn't always a happy story, but it is a truthful one; it never glosses over the harsh realities of life, especially for women of the time, and it faithfully empowers women in a manner that is never overbearing, merely subtle.
Donnelly's A Northern Light is told cleverly with two timelines neatly converging into one, creating an ending that is both satisfying and powerful. When the novel begins, the body of a drowned woman, Grace Brown, is found near the inn where Mattie works. Shortly before leaving for her boat ride, Grace gave Mattie a bundle of letters to burn, but just hours later, Grace herself is found dead. Mattie, suspicious of the circumstances surrounding her death, begins to read the letters Grace gave her. As the contents of these letters are slowly revealed, so is Mattie. For every present-day chapter there are even more chapters from the past, not only detailing Mattie's journey but also showing who she really is.
Mattie's story takes place in the early 1900s, a time when women were expected to run a household and raise a family. Mattie, however, yearns to attend college, despite the fact that her mother recently died and her father needs her help on their farm. Although there are many other responsibilities Mattie has, from the beginning itself it is hard not to root for her. After all, this is a protagonist whose love for language pushes her to learn a new word from the dictionary everyday. And though I regard A Northern Light to be a tale that empowers women and celebrates feminism, Mattie herself is no Alice Paul. Instead, what makes her such an endearing and unforgettable protagonist are, first and foremost, her passions and secondly, her own inner battles. While society pushes Mattie towards a life of love and comfort in a house with children, her own heart begins to push her that way too, which makes the decision to chase her dream that much more difficult.
All the more, Mattie is not a perfect character. Although one of her best friends is an African American boy who is on his way to Columbia, Mattie doesn’t always treat her own family properly. In fact, these family dynamics are what make the novel so fascinating, what make us keep flipping these pages frantically. Will Mattie convince her father to allow her to go to college? Can the inspirational teacher Mattie had help her in this endeavor? Is Mattie really going to be tied down to her small town by a promise she once made to her dying mother? In such a subtle manner, Donnelly uses Mattie’s life to build her era. Instead of paragraphs of bland information, Mattie’s society is build around her and stems from her perceptions, making this the best kind of historical fiction there is – the kind that doesn’t feel like fiction at all.
In all honesty, though, I can keep prattling on about this book for days if you’d allow me. Mattie is such a vivacious, strong, and courageous character that her story captures you from the beginning. You yearn for her to fulfill her dreams, for her to realize her true calling in life and pursue it despite what others may say. You begin to pray that she will somehow escape her small town and farm life. You keep the book aside and tie your hands behind your back because you don’t want to know what happens even though you really do, but you’re so very scared of the outcome. You begin to hope feverishly that her love for her family will not cause her to disregard her love for words; that she will finally gain the opportunity to do what she wants to do. It’s a beautiful book, the kind you’ll always carry around with you – in your heart.