A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

Summary: It is 1906 and Mattie Gokey is trying to learn how to stand up like a man -- even though she’s a sixteen-year-old girl. At her summer job at a resort on Big Moose Lake in the Adirondack mountains, she will earn enough money to make something of her life.

That money could be a dowry to wed the handsome but dull Royal Loomis. It could save her father’s brokeback farm. Or it might buy her a train ticket to New York City and college and a life that she can barely allow herself to imagine.

But Mattie’s worries and plans are cast into a cold light when the drowned body of Grace Brown turns up – a young woman who gave Mattie a packet of love letters, letters that convince Mattie that the drowning was no accident.

Inspired by the sensational Chester Gillette murder case of 1906, which was also the basis for Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and the film A Place in the Sun, this story evokes novels such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Little Women, and other classics that hark back to times of lost innocence.

My Review: I don't really agree with some of the the summary here. Royal Loomis is way more interesting and well-developed, if still not desirable for Mattie, than "handsome but dull" gives him credit. Nearly every character in this book is three-dimensional, and Royal is almost a protagonist himself. The key is not desirable for Mattie. We understand all his choices, even when we don't agree with them, and his dreams and his version of a good life are real and valid...but they're not Mattie's dreams. He's a hardworking guy, and while rough around the edges, he'd surely grow into a great husband for someone.

Just not Mattie.

Because their values aren't the same.

And that's just one of the hundreds of places where this story finds strength. I can't say enough good things about this book. It's definitely literary, not commercial, so if you're looking for something to breeze through without thinking about much, then this isn't the book. But if you're looking for something to savor, take the time to walk through old New York state with Mattie Gokey as your guide.

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