Publisher: Harcourt Paperbacks (2004)
Format: Paperback | 396 pages
Genre(s): Historical Fiction, Young Adult
Description (GR): "Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey has big dreams but little hope of seeing them come true. Desperate for money, she takes a job at the Glenmore, where hotel guest Grace Brown asks her to burn a bundle of secret letters. But when Grace's drowned body is fished from the lake, Mattie discovers the letters reveal the grim truth behind a murder.
Set in 1906 against a backdrop of the murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, this astonishing novel weaves romance, history, and a murder mystery into something moving, real, and wholly original."
WARNING: Contains SPOILERS!
"A Northern Light" is a difficult book to give an opinion about, because while I was reading it I was not pulled to the story all that much. I disliked the way the plot was structured: it opens with Mattie (Mathilda) our main character working at a hotel to make some money. It also opens with the death of a young woman, a guest at the hotel. This woman, Grace Brown has given something to Mattie; something that can help solve the mystery of her drowning.
I was pretty thrilled with the first chapter. I thought this would be a mystery book with a young maid as the sleuth.
But... it wasn't. In a way the story is much, much better: it's actually the story of Mattie, of her life, her friendships and all the hardship that comes from being a young woman in rural America in the early 1900s. Especially a young woman who likes to read and has dreams. I quickly grew to love this part of the story, the harshness of the character's life and Mattie's personality.
That is why I didn't understand the need for the random chapters speckled throughout, about the murdered girl and about what she gave to Mattie. These chapters are few and sometimes far between and are basically Mattie's present. The rest of the story is a retelling of what led to Mattie being in the hotel, working.
Basically, what bothered me, as I said above, was the structure. Why not follow a strait timeline and present the mystery in the end? I thought the "present chapters" (let's call them that) were detrimental because they cut the flow of Mattie's own story. And even if these "present chapters" end up being about Mattie as well and very important, I just didn't feel like those letters Grace gave to Mattie should have mattered that much.
Royal's attitude, Miss Wilcox's story and example, Mattie's own character; yes, I could see her making her decision because of one of these factors (or maybe all); but the letters... didn't seem like a proper trigger for change.
Overall: I loved this book's main story, Mattie's. There were a few parts that could have been better - Weaver for example sometimes didn't seem very smart if you take his attitudes into account - but on the whole I really liked reading about the harsh life of farmers and the harsh life of women in 1906. I loved Mattie's spirit. I do think however that adding the story of Grace Brown's murder (which happens to be a real story, I discovered) to the mix was not for the best. It served no real purpose as Mattie could have had her "epiphany" some other way and really the random appearance of chapters concerning the murder was annoying.