2006 – The Winners
Sarah B., Silver Springs
Nothing is what it seems in the North Woods. Individual ambition and
tradition color even the most straightforward of intentions. Mattie
Gokey dreams of making her way into the world as a writer and
independent modern woman as she collects words with subtly varied
meanings from her dictionary. Several times Mattie’s ambition is almost
thwarted by the hardships her family faces and her physical attraction
to an unlikely suitor. She is expected to submit to playing the roles
she was born to, those of obedient daughter and wife. A glimpse into the
tragic drowning death of a tourist gives Mattie the strength and
conviction to go forward with her plans, highlighting the futility of
living one’s life while trying to fit the idea of what someone else may
expect from her. So many people today could take from this book the
lesson of living the excitement of their own dreams.
Mary Ellen C., Batavia
“A Northern Light” by Jennifer Donnelly is a gem of a novel about one
day that changes the life of Matty Gokey. Grace Brown’s drowning in 1906
at the Glenmore Resort is the setting for the story told through
flashbacks. Rich characters embody the conflicts that will consume the
Matty’s fascination with words, however, is the focus. Her “word-a-day”
entries, and “word duels” introduce the passion that Matty has for
language. The author’s literary references are links for the entranced
reader. Matty’s struggle to write the “truth” raises profound literary
questions that are at the heart of artistic expression. Her realization
that she is lying to herself, forces a choice … for her herself, for
Grace Brown and for the reader, who is now aware of the high price that
Matty will pay.
Truth is multifaceted. There cannot be a simple, happy ending.
Linda D., Oakfield
“A Northern Light” is a book for all generations. Marketed as a “coming
of age” story for young adults, there is much to be learned and enjoyed
for all, teens, history buffs and retirees.
As a woman raised in the ‘40s and ‘50s, I can identify with Mattie’s
struggle to choose the best path for her life – the safe, ordinary and
expected choice of husband and family or the non-traditional, more
adventuresome career. Young women today are expected to “have it all.”
In 1906, Mattie found out that was not possible, and I believe it is
still a difficult achievement today.
Teachers, counselors and mentors of young people could learn much from
reading about Miss Wilcox, Mattie, Weaver and even Miss Parish. We all
need to be aware of the critical role that teachers and mentors play in
changing young lives. It is an awesome responsibility.
Meghan H., Perry
Appealing. That word best describes Mattie Gokey, the key character in
Jennifer Donnelly’s “A Northern Light.” Mattie herself loves words and
uses her dictionary daily to bring learning and lightness to the harsh
reality of her life in the North Woods.
Sixteen-year-old Mattie faces difficult choices about her future. Each
chapter unfolds with subtle lessons for Mattie of what her life could be
like – if she stays home to support her family, if she marries, if she
goes to college, if she becomes a writer. It’s Mattie’s graphic
encounter with the death of another girl and her gradual discoveries
about this death that spurs Mattie to make a decision and to be grateful
that she has choices to make.
Donnelly has created an engaging tale that skillfully blends just enough
historical fact with thought-provoking fiction, all designed to make the
reader root for the plucky and very likeable Mattie.
Frances M., Batavia
Im-plau-si-ble – having a quality that provokes disbelief
From the first letter that Mattie reads, and the several others
throughout the book, I was bothered by the fact some were Grace’s own
letters, written to Chester. Why did Grace have her own letters in her
possession? I kept thinking maybe I had missed something, and would have
to go back and read again, or that a plausible explanation would be
provided further on. I was happy this question was answered, although
not until the afterward Author’s Notes.
I liked this book. Life’s challenges and components – birth, death,
grief, financial strife, family conflicts, illness, racism, love, and
many others, were portrayed through believable characters. A young woman
like Mattie, faced with life-altering decisions, reminds readers about
their own dilemmas, and can appreciate her turmoil. I’ve allowed myself
to speculate her decision was the right one, with the remainder of her
life personally satisfying.
Loren P., Batavia
“A Northern Light” may not be a life-altering reading experience for
young adults, but the images of life in the Adirondacks at the turn of
the last century are difficult to shake. Although the book capitalizes
on the infamous drowning of a young pregnant woman by her lover, this is
far from a “CSI” dram. Instead, author Jennifer Donnelly leads the
reader into the mind of the 16-year-old protagonists, a bright and
ambitious girl living in a time when neither quality was synonymous with
femininity. Mattie’s complicated family relationships and her ambiguous
feelings about love mirror those that adolescents have encountered for
generations. But our heroine’s unique power (and the author’s) comes
from the words – words as the root of games, words that paint vivid
pictures or make promises or tell lies, words that are written and
spoken and unspoken, words that take your breath away. Words like these:
“They leave things behind sometimes, the guests. A bottle of scent. A
crumpled handkerchief. A pearl button that fell off a dress and rolled
under a bed. And sometimes they leave other sorts of things. Things you
can’t see. A sigh trapped in a corner. Memories tangled in the curtains.
A sob fluttering against the windowpane like a bird that flew in and
can’t get back out.” (pp134-5)