A Northern Light

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Year: 2003

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January 9, 2015 – TIME Magazine names A Northern Light one of the 100 best young adult books of all time!

Winner of the Carnegie Medal, the L.A. Times Book Prize, the Borders Original Voices Prize, and a Michael L. Printz Honor, A Northern Light (A Gathering Light in the UK) is a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of a true murder which took place in the Adirondacks in the summer of 1906.

The Story

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.

  • "... (an) ambitious, beautifully written coming-of-age story ... Many teens will connect with Mattie's fierce yearning for independence and for stories, like her own, that are frank, messy, complicated and inspiring."

    BooklistSTARRED REVIEW
  • "This is a breathtaking tale, complex and often earthy ... Donnelly's characters ring true to life, and the meticulously detailed setting forms a vivid backdrop to this finely crafted story."

    School Library JournalSTARRED REVIEW
    • Carnegie Medal Winner
    • Los Angeles Times Book Prize Winner
    • ALA Printz Honor Book
    • A TIME Magazine 100 Best YA Books of All Time
    • A Junior Library Guild Selection
    • A Best Book of the Year: Publisher's Weekly, Booklist, School Library Journal, The Irish Times, The Times (London), The Financial Times, Amazon.com

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 MockingbirdLittle Women, and other classics that hark back to times of lost innocence.

The Inspiration

Even though I haven’t written very many books yet, people are starting to ask me where I get my ideas. This question makes me laugh. I’m always tempted to say, “Oh, I get them at Target. Unless there’s a special at Walmart. Then I get them there.”

The truth is, I don’t get them at all – they get me.

I’ll see something, or read something, or visit a place. Somebody will put something in my hands – a book, an old photo. Maybe I’ll hear a snatch of conversation, or smell something – roses or coal smoke or cinnamon – and suddenly it’s there: a small, strange tingle of recognition that this thing, this feeling, this idea, this story, is meant for me.

I become fascinated. Captivated. Compelled. Obsessed. I go to bed and wake up again thinking about the story. I want to be with it, and I want to pull to myself anything and everything – a crumbling diary, shreds of fabric, yellowed postcards, an old balsam pillow – that makes it more real.

The tingle of a new story makes me feel stronger, taller, smarter, more alive. I have tons of energy and optimism and feel happy and excited. It’s a feeling I crave and one I wish I could summon on demand, though I know it doesn’t listen to demands. It comes only when it’s good and ready. I think it’s a lot like the feeling of falling in love.

The tingle for A Northern Light started a few years ago, when my mother and I were prowling around in a bookshop in Old Forge, New York, in the Adirondacks.

“Did you ever read this?” my mom asked me, holding up a copy of An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. I hadn’t and she said I must. The book is a fictionalized account of a murder that occurred on Big Moose Lake, on the western edge of the Adirondack Mountains. Dreiser’s book affected me very deeply and I began to read all that I could about the real case, in which a young man named Chester Gillette murdered a woman he’d made pregnant – a nineteen-year-old farm girl named Grace Brown.

Gillette was apprehended and convicted for the murder, and instrumental to that conviction were letters Grace Brown herself had written to him. In them, Grace pleads with Chester to come and take her away before her condition becomes apparent. The letters are full of fear and desperation, but they also show this young woman’s intelligence, humor, and wit.

Grace’s words were the tingle. I couldn’t stop hearing her voice, couldn’t stop grieving for such a young, lovely life so callously snuffed out. Mattie Gokey, the heroine of A Northern Light, was born, in part, because I wanted to change the past. I wanted to know that someone had been kind to Grace on her last day. That someone had smiled at her, and exchanged a few pleasant words.

Falling in love – with a person, or a place, or a story – changes your life. And Mattie and Grace have changed mine. I finished the book last summer, and I felt sad when they let me go. And lonely and pointless. It was like a good friend moving far away.

But just the other day, I was cleaning out some files to make room for all the xeroxes and old postcards and photos I’ve accumulated while researching A Northern Light, and I came across an old, yellowed newspaper clipping that I stuffed in there while ago. It was just a small article from the depths of Section A of The New York Times, a few lines on people and events of a long time ago. But I felt something funny as I read it. Something that made my ears prick up and my hands tremble and my heart beat a little faster.

I think it was a tingle.

Read an excerpt from A Northern Light.

Listen to a sample of the audiobook, read by Hope Davis.

Buy A Northern Light from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or your local independent bookstore.

6 comments

  1. Tracey Curry says:

    Dear Jennifer,

    Awhile back, your book “Northern Lights” was offered as a free read on my Nook. I downloaded it and put it in my library for future reading. It was lended to my friend who started reading it and was immediately hooked. Hearing her talk about it during our daily walks, I, too, began reading it. We’ve both since finished the book. It’s amazing how our perceptions are different about the characters and how each of us had a different outlook on Matt’s ultimate decision in the end. We’ve not been able to stop talking about the social repression, racism and societal boundaries and expectations of 1906. What’s more, we live in Upstate New York and are very familiar with the setting. Reading “Northern Lights” was akin to sitting on a beach reading Wharton’s “Awakening.” Thank you for a wonderful book. Would you consider writing a sequel? We’d love to know Matt’s next chapter in life.

    • Jennifer Donnelly says:

      Hi Tracey: Thank you for your lovely note. I’m thrilled that you and your friend have different perspectives on Mattie and the other characters — I hope that has led to some good conversations on your daily walks! I have no immediate plans for a sequel, but I certainly miss Mattie and would love to check in with her one day!

  2. Willow says:

    Hi!
    I’m currently doing a detailed essay based on how A Gathering Light presents the natural world. It’s really interesting to research but I was wondering, where did your main inspiration come from to write about this particular event (murder of Grace Brown)? I also found while reading this novel, that because Mattie wants to escape the North Woods and do more with her life, it shows her loss of connection with the land which contrasts that completely to the characters such as Royal and Pa who have dedictated their whole life to their farms and plan to till they die. Do you agree with this?
    Thank you so much, I really do love this book!

    • Jennifer Donnelly says:

      Hi Willow: To your first question, please read my inspiration for A Gathering Light/A Northern Light here: https://www.jenniferdonnelly.com/book/a-northern-light/

      Your second question is one I have never been asked before – yay! Here goes: I agree with you that Mattie has a very different relationship with the North Woods than Pa or Royal. But I wouldn’t say that she lost her connection to the natural world. Quite the contrary: as harsh as it is, Mattie loves the North Woods deeply — note that it’s a frequent topic for her as she hones her voice as a writer through the book — and that love is one of the things that makes her choice such a difficult one.

      I think Pa and Royal stay put because they love the North Woods, even with all its difficulties, and each finds what he needs there. The rest of the world doesn’t hold much allure for them. I’m pretty sure they would both be miserable in New York City.

      Thank you for an excellent question; what a treat to think about an angle I hadn’t really considered before. You helped me learn something new about my own book!

  3. Janeane says:

    I truly love this story so much I have it from audible.com and listen to it over and over. I would love to know who Mattie grew up to be and what happened to her when she got to New York City. Have you ever thought about writing a sequel? I also think this would be a tremendous movie, has there ever been an offer for that? Your writing is really phenomenal and you are an excellent storyteller thank you so much!

    • Jennifer Donnelly says:

      Thank you so much, Janeane! This makes my day! I haven’t really thought much about a sequel to A Northern Light, to be honest — but you never know … maybe one day! I agree it would make a great movie — and my fingers are crossed that it will happen soon! 🤞🤞🤞

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