For Historical Fiction Fans: A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly


I listened to another audiobook! I recently finished A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly and I think it was my eighth audiobook of 2013.

Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey has big dreams but little hope of seeing them come true. Desperate for money, she takes a job

This isn't the cover for the audiobook, but I like this one better.

This isn’t the cover for the audiobook, but I like this one better.

at the Glenmore, where hotel guest Grace Brown entrusts her with the task of burning a secret bundle of letters. But when Grace’s drowned body is fished from the lake, Mattie discovers that the letters could reveal the grim truth behind a murder.

Set in 1906 against the backdrop of the murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Jennifer Donnelly’s astonishing debut novel effortlessly weaves romance, history, and a murder mystery into something moving, and real, and wholly original.

Historical fiction…why are you so good?! I love you! Seriously, I’m picky about my historical fiction, but when I do read one I like….I REALLY LIKE IT! Jennifer Donnelly’s books have this gritty realistic quality to them that I don’t always see in a lot of YA. Last year I listened to Donnelly’s Revolution, which I really enjoyed (read my review here) so I thought I should give another of her books a try. I’m glad I did because I think I prefer A Northern Light to Revolution.

First I think the main character, Mattie, is what made A Northern Light that much more enjoyable for me. Mattie, an intelligent farm girl with dreams of college and the big city was an engaging character. She is sharp and observant while also sarcastically witty. Mattie is under a lot of pressure and struggles to keep her head afloat amidst the contradictions of her dreams and her reality.

Both Mattie and Grace’s stories are told through flashbacks and both girls are fleshed out really well. Mattie begins to see something of herself in Grace’s letters which ultimately scares her. Although the story is mostly about Mattie and Grace, the supporting characters are written well. Sometimes minor characters get the two-dimensional treatment, but I really felt each character’s voice from the beginning.  They were all complex and had their own struggles which sometimes even mirrored Mattie’s. Each one was flawed in ways that make you want to love them more. Also, the mystery surrounding Grace Brown’s death is gripping. As the reader you just know something is not right and you can’t wait to figure out what it is. I’d say this was a page turner, but I was listening to it so that doesn’t apply!

Now, I did get a little frustrated at times because Donnelly’s overarching theme is pretty heavy-handed. It was incredibly clear that the main message was that women will be nothing but prisoners if they allow men into their lives. Not one woman in Mattie’s story lived a life that was happy and fulfilled, unless they made the choice to be manless. I was bothered by this not simply because I disagree with this idea, but because Donnelly doesn’t give us any room to see other possibilities. I know this story is set in a different era, but I cannot believe that EVERY woman throughout history who chose to have a man in their life was less fulfilled than those who chose to be alone. I find it frustrating that the reader is left with only one possibility.

OKAY…I’m getting off my soapbox now.

Despite the above mentioned frustrations, I still really, really enjoyed listening to A Northern Light. The narrator’s voices were all well performed (although one character’s southern accent shifted here and there) and I enjoyed her narration. If you don’t enjoy historical fiction, Donnelly’s books probably aren’t for you, and I do believe A Northern Light will be best enjoyed by older high school students (and those of us who find ourselves a tad bit older) who love historical fiction.

Author: Jennifer Donnelly

Publisher: Random House Audio (March 1, 2003)

Format: Audiobook

Length: 8 hours and 49 minutes

Narrator(s): Hope Davis

Series: Standalone


Buy the Book: A Northern Light

2 thoughts on “For Historical Fiction Fans: A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

  1. I love historical fiction! And I read by far not enough of it. I always find it so hard to select books I think I’ll really, really like. Jennifer Donelly seems to be all over the place, though. In the library where I volunteer, all of her books are always checked out :) I guess now that I’ve read a Review on one of them, I should finally try them, too! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Your review reminded me that this book is sitting on my shelf and I really need to read it. I loved REVOLUTION, though this appears to be quite a different story with a very different “feel”. I agree that the “all men suck” rant gets a little old in historical fiction, but it sounds like this is still a worthwhile read!

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