Books: A Northern Light

>> Friday, December 30, 2005

One of my purposes in creating a blog was to chronicle my own reading - and perhaps guilt me into keeping up with it better. (Curse you, LEGO Star Wars! And I haven't even OPENED the FIFA Soccer game I also got for Christmas . . .) So, let us begin with a Printz Award-winner, Jennifer Donnelly's A Northern Light.

Wendi has been on me to read this one forever. There is a certain amount of stress that goes into reading a book a good friend has recommended. How do you get excited about a book that didn't call to you from the shelves? What do you tell your friend if you don't like it? Can you quit reading it if you lose interest, or are you obligated to finish it?

Luckily, none of those was a problem. I really enjoyed A Northern Light. Set against the backdrop of the real-life murder that was the heart of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, A Northern Light is the story of Mattie Gokey, a teenage girl coming of age in the hardscrabble world just beyond the gates of the massive, rich hotels springing up in the Catskills around the turn of the last century. Mattie is a smart girl, a book-lover surrounded by functional illiterates and folks too practical to waste time with a nose buried in a book. Her fate, as you might guess, boils down to staying on to help her widowed father and her younger sisters eke out a living from the earth, or escape to Barnard College in New York and pursue her dreams of becoming a writer. Mattie's entanglement in the real-life murder mystery is really only important to the story in acting as inspiration for Mattie's final decision, and I must confess it feels a bit unnecessary.

But the rest of the story is well-crafted, and there are fantastic passages throughout. Not like Michael Chabon passages, where you can cut out a sentence and post it on your wall completely out of context and it continues to sparkle and glimmer in a way you cannot hope to achieve on your own, but instead passages that are set up so deftly by the story that you find yourself occasionally nodding at the power in the words and tearing up at the meaning behind them. I both love reading books like this and hate it; I simultaneously want to aspire to their greatness, while fearing in the depths of my soul that I can never do so.


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