Book Review: A Northern Light

Author: Jennifer Donnelly

Publisher: Harcourt, 2003

Genre: Young Adult Literature

Pages: 396

Source: A gift from my daughter, Candice

Reason For Reading: My blogging friend Jill strongly recommended it.

My Rating: A+

Awards Won: The Carnegie Medal, Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and a Printz Award Honor Book


A Northern Light is basically the story of two young women, one fictional and the other was real.

Mattie Cokey is the oldest of four daughters on a farm in the North Woods of New York in 1906. Her mother has died, the oldest son ran away and their father is barely making it on the farm.

Mattie is smart and creative. She loves books and words and writing stories. Mattie dreams of going to college and has actually been accepted on full scholarship to Barnard. The problems of fulfilling that dream are many. Money for a train ticket and books is one. Mattie also promised her mother she would stay and help run the farm and raise her sisters. And then there is the attentions of a very handsome neighbor.

Desperate for money, Mattie is allowed to take a summer job at a local resort hotel. One of the guests gives Mattie some letters and makes her promise to burn them. Later that day the guest, Grace Brown, accidently drowned, only it wasn’t an accident.

Over the course of the summer, so many things happened. Instead of burning the letters, Mattie reads them and realizes why Grace’s drowning was not an accident. Taking a good look at Grace’s life, helps Mattie look clearly at her own. She has to weigh the value of staying with the promises she made, or doing what is right for everyone she loves as well as for herself.

My thoughts:

I absolutely loved this book.

  • I loved the character of Mattie. I was pulling for her all the way. But I also loved her friend Weaver, her teacher Miss Wilcox, and many of the less prominent characters. They were all very real to me. I wish the author had written a sequel. I want to known how they are doing now after several years.
  • I loved the issues raised in the book: racism, feminism, class, the responsibilities of family members to each other, and more. All issues were covered subtly as part of the story.
  • I loved the way Mattie and her teacher loved literature. There are so many reference to classics literature.
  • I loved the writing. So many passages were so beautiful I had to read them again. Some made me cry or smile. I had to force myself to take a break from reading to do normal things like eat and sleep. But, the story stayed with me, is still with me.

You might be interest to know that the author, Jennifer Donnelly was fascinated by the true story of the real Grace Brown. She researched the circumstances and found that letters between Grace Brown and her lover were discovered after her death, read in court and led to the lover’s conviction and execution. The author took the story of Grace Brown and built that true story into her fictional story. Honestly, it was hard to tell which one of the characters was real and which ones were fictional.

A Northern Light has won numerous awards for Young Adult Literature. (See above.) As time and space is running short here I won’t cover each of the awards. Just let me say it’s high on the lists of literary people around the world.

Check your local library for a copy or your local bookstore. A Northern Lightis also available at Amazon. (I am an Amazon Associate.)

About Margot

I'm also known as Joyfully Retired. I love to talk. I love to talk about books I've read, movies I've seen, places I've traveled to, people (especially my children and grandchildren), and Food. On the Quirky Girls Read blog I'm trying to read all the books that have won the major awards and then, of course, talk about them.
This entry was posted in Award Winners, Fiction, Posts by Margot, YA and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Book Review: A Northern Light

  1. Kay says:

    I actually have a copy of this book sitting on my shelf here. I see I need to pull it down this summer and read it. Will do, Margot. Very, very nice review.

  2. I loved this too, as you know! I think it was the writing that absolutely knocked me out. And the way Donnelly researches all her books knocks me out too. I went from this one to Revolution and was knocked out again by the 360 degree change in voice. And then of course the rose series for adults – not only another voice change, but amazing amounts of research and the wonderful writing again in all of these. I think she’s one of the most impressive authors out there!

    • Margot says:

      I’m so grateful to you on this one. As you predicted, it knocked me over. I’m glad you mentioned voice because Donnelly takes the time to have Miss Wilcox talk to Mattie about her voice and encourages her to continue to write. It was one of the quotes I wanted to include in my review but decided against it as I already had such a long post. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Ms. Donnelly’s books and I’ll pay attention to the changing voices.

  3. stacybuckeye says:

    This is one YA book I plan on making an exception for. Now you need to read The Tea Rose 🙂

  4. izzybella says:

    This was already on my reading list based on another review but I think it’s moving up the queue…:)

    • Margot says:

      I strongly recommend making time for this book. It’s a solid story, rich characters, and, as Jill says, the writing will knock you over. Let me know what you think.

  5. I don’t know if I would have picked this up because I don’t read much YA but after your review I’m heading to the library.

    • Margot says:

      I haven’t been a big YA reader either but now that my oldest granddaughter has moved into that arena, I’ve changed my reading habits. As I said to Stacy above, this book didn’t feel YA. There was nothing simple about the story. There were some tough issues here as well. Nothing sugar coated. I’m actually having my daughter read the book next. Then we’ll see if the granddaughter (12 and 1/2) can read it.

  6. Staci says:

    Excellent review Margot. This book was my first introduction to the author. I read it about 4 years ago and loved it immediately!!

  7. jehara says:

    I’ve never heard of this one, but it sounds really really good. I’m especially intrigued by the research and integration Grace Brown’s story. Great review, Margot!

    • Margot says:

      I think to integrate a real story with a fictional one takes skill. Especially when it was hard to tell which was which. Donnelly is a very skilled writer.

  8. Kristi says:

    Excellent review – this sounds like a book that I would enjoy. When the letters are read by Mattie, are they included in the book as letters? I am a huge fan of epistolary novels.

  9. Erin says:

    I just finished listening to this one a week or so ago! The audiobook was fantastic. I loved everything about the book you cited. Above all, I loved Mattie, and I loved that I could trust Donnelly to lead her to the right place. So glad you loved it, too!

  10. Pingback: Joyfully Retired » My Favorite Books of 2011 | Books

  11. Pingback: My Favorite Award-Winners From 2011 |

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