A Northern Light

A Northern Light A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Genre: Historical Fiction, YA
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers

This review contains no spoilers.

This is part of my Alphabetical Books Goal.

Mattie Gokey has a word for everything. She collects words, stores them up as a way of fending off the hard truths of her life, the truths that she can’t write down in stories.

The fresh pain of her mother’s death. The burden of raising her sisters while her father struggles over his brokeback farm. The mad welter of feelings Mattie has for handsome but dull Royal Loomis, who says he wants to marry her. And the secret dreams that keep her going–visions of finishing high school, going to college in New York City, becoming a writer.

Yet when the drowned body of a young woman turns up at the hotel where Mattie works, all her words are useless. But in the dead woman’s letters, Mattie again finds her voice, and a determination to live her own life.

Set in 1906 against the backdrop of the murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, this coming-of-age novel effortlessly weaves romance, history, and a murder mystery into something moving, and real, and wholly original.

The book has one of the strangest set ups ever. The POV is all Mattie, however, it bounces back and forth between her time at home (while she’s struggling to get out of the life she has) and her time at the inn (when the murder takes place).

One of the best parts, is Mattie’s love of reading and education. The entire POV at her house is set around her deciding whether or not to leave home, and because of the alternate POV at the inn where she already has left home, a majority of the suspense is what will finally drive her to leave. It sounds like it should be hard to get invested in, after all you already know that that POV will end, however, the book is so well written that there were times the author almost tricked me into thinking she wouldn’t leave.

The POV at the inn is also interesting. It starts long before the murder takes place, and covers the struggles faced by a young woman who is trying to make a better place for herself in a time that was very difficult.

Mattie is very easy to relate to, clearly if you’re reading this you love books and Mattie does too. She has an amazing way of looking at the world and of capturing the hardships around her in a poetical way (speaking of poets: a real-life poet has a cameo, but I won’t spoil who it is!).

The Murder

This book is set around a real like murder, which is the reason I picked it up (in case you don’t know: I love murder cases and strange death cases).

The Victim: Grace Brown

The Murderer: Chester Gillette

The Murder: After realizing that Brown was pregnant, Gillette invited her to visit an Inn. Once there they rowed out to the center of the lake, he hit her over the head, and shoved her in.

I had actually heard of this murder before – it’s been portrayed in movie and in film before – however, I didn’t know very much about it. It was really neat to see the people brought to life in such a matter as if they were desperate for a chance to tell their own stories. The research was phenomenal.

Best Quote

“Words fail me sometimes. I have read most every book in the Webster’s Dictionary of the English language, but I still have trouble making them come when I want them to. Right now I want a word that describes the feeling you get – a cold sick feeling deep down inside – when you know something is happening that will change you, and you don’t want it to, but you can’t stop it. And you know, for the first time, for the very first time, that there will be a before and an after, a was and a will be. And that you will never again quite be the same person you were.”


This is one of the most moving pieces of historical fiction I’ve ever read. Everyone I’ve ever recommended it to has loved it and agreed that the style of POV hopping is a bit difficult to get into, however, once you do it’s more than worth it.


2 thoughts on “A Northern Light

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