A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly


Donnelly, Jennifer. A Northern Light. Clarion, 2019 (reprint). ISBN 978-0358063681 416 pp. $9.99


Inspired by Dreiser’s classic-based-on-a-true-story An American Tragedy (New American Library, 1925), this historical novel about a 1906 murder in upstate NY is told from the point of view of young Mattie Gokey, a hotel waitress and aspiring college student saddled with caring for her motherless siblings and holding the family together. Mattie is spunky, resourceful, and truth-seeking, surrounded by believable, complex and dynamic friends, family and neighbors. She is best friends with a fellow word-lover and black boy whose mouth and temper sometimes get him into trouble. And she can’t believe that the most handsome and popular boy in town is courting her.

Mattie’s strong voice captures the period closely – neighbors work together to help one another, blacks are still not seen as full citizens by many, and girls aren’t always given their due. When a hotel guest slips Mattie a packet of letters to destroy, Mattie, a writer and bibliophile, can’t do it. The letters reveal the love and desperation of a sad young woman and call into question the circumstances of her death. They are the call to arms that Mattie needs to pursue her own dreams.

The author’s own passion and empathy for the victim of a famous murder case shines through this gem of a book. It is well-deserving of it’s Printz honor award, and is a quality book that is engaging to teens and will win a nod of approval from teachers as well–AND meet curriculum frameworks!

Review by Beth Gallaway

Another take on A Northern Light.

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