BOOK: A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

I’m not quite sure what to say about this one. When I first started reading it, I got really into it and, in fact, was really excited about the potentially fascinating story it was about to tell me. But then I got about halfway through and realized the plot wasn’t actually going anywhere near where I thought it was headed. Man, I hate it when that happens!

The story focuses on a 16 year-old girl in 1906 named Mattie Gokey who has finally managed to break free of her domineering father and taken a job at a local hotel, a job she hopes will earn her the money she needs to go to college. While at the hotel, she has a conversation one hot afternoon with a guest — a young woman named Grace Brown. Grace gives Mattie a packet of letters and asks Mattie to destroy them for her. The next day, Grace is found dead in the river, supposedly the victim of a boating accident.

The description of the plot on the book’s cover had made it sound like this mystery was going to be the main thread of the novel. Additionally, Grace Brown’s story is based on a true story, one Theodore Dreiser first novelized in his book An American Tragedy. Having seen that in the description, I went into this novel expecting it to A) be a crime story, and B) be written in a somewhat “literary” style. But by that aforementioned halfway mark, I could see it just wasn’t going in either direction. Instead, the plot primarily stays focused on Mattie herself — Mattie complaining about how her Dad never lets her do anything, Mattie whining about how much she wants to go to school and be a grown-up, Mattie expressing her desperation for independence and the chance to start over. Etc. etc. etc.

At first, this made no sense to me — what the heck is going on in this book? You have the idea to tell a somewhat-famous true crime story from the perspective of a teenage girl and you waste it like this? It wasn’t until I finished it that I realized I’d missed something very important on the cover. As it turns out, this is a YOUNG ADULT novel. It’s not going likely to be a gritty, intense crime tale, nor is it going to be, say, at all Theodore Dreiser-ish. It’s going to be what it is, which is essentially Little House on the Prairie, except set in a bigger town and lightly scented with a moderately scandalous murder, the implications of which primarily pass all the main characters right by.

I might’ve really enjoyed this book had I known it was a YA novel when I started reading it. Instead, I was just so confused and puzzled by what seemed like the author’s wasting of a perfectly good idea that it mostly just made me feel peevish. So, my plan at this point is to give it a few more years and then try it again. I just can’t tell if the 13 year-old me would’ve liked this novel if only the 34 year-old me hadn’t gotten in her way (the 13 year-old me is still in there, you know — she just has to be alerted when she’s needed). If you’ve read this novel, I’d love to hear what you thought about it, especially if you read a lot of YA books and found this one to be a standout, good or bad.


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