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A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

Image of A Northern Light

If there's anything that will make you appreciate being a modern woman, it's taking a journey to visit young women in New York, circa 1906. In A Northern Light , Mattie Gokey is trying to get her high school degree, help her father run the family farm, and raise her siblings following the death of her mother. Encouraged by her teacher, Mattie dreams of writing and a life of the mind - but handsome Royal Loomis has caught her eye. Buying herself time and money, she goes to work at a hotel for the summer.

It is there that Mattie becomes involved in the death of a young woman named Grace Brown, as Grace asked Mattie to burn her letters before taking an ill-advised trip out on a boat with her lover. Grace's story, a spin-off of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, is told through the letters, with each chapter going back and forth between Mattie and Grace's life. From the beginning you know that Grace has lessons to teach Mattie, namely why not to trust a man who is a little too charming and a little too ambitious.

While Mattie's voice can occasionlly be a touch naive or stilted, i.e. "Grace must have loved Chester very much to give him her virtue," she generally is a relatable heroine, filled with thoughts and ideas as applicable to a modern teen as to living one a century ago. In one chapter, Mattie goes to visit pregnant friend Minnie, who has gone into labor. Despite the horror of a natural delivery with twins, Mattie is moved by husband Jim coming home to see his wife and babies. Yet Donnelly closes the loop several chapters later, where Mattie goes to visit Minnie and finds the place in shambles, the babies filthy and Jim grumpy because he can't have relations with his wife. Mattie has an ephiphany about women and family, realizing "Emily Dickinson was a damned sneaky genius." It would have been easy for Donnelly to let her heroine "have it all," but makes it clear that Mattie has to choose.

I was thrilled that this was a book club selection, as it's seven years old and never would have caught my eye otherwise. It was a great note on which to end my time with my Baltimore book club. It would be an excellent choice for the classroom, and great for any teenager. This is a book that parents can feel good about - there are positive messages throughout about staying true to yourself and the consequences of imprudent decisions.