Review of A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

Review of A Northern Light by Jennifer DonnellyA Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
Also by this author: Revolution, Waterfire Saga, Book One: Deep Blue, These Shallow Graves, A Crown of Wishes
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on 2004
Genres: 20th Century, Adolescence, Girls & Women, Historical, Social Issues, United States, Young Adult
Pages: 408
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon

Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey has a word for everything, and big dreams but little hope of seeing them come true. She collects words, stores them up as a way of fending off the hard truths of her life, the truths that she can't write down in stories. The fresh pain of her mother's death. The burden of raising her sisters while her father struggles over his brokeback farm. The mad welter of feelings Mattie has for handsome but dull Royal Loomis, who says he wants to marry her. And the secret dreams that keep her going--visions of finishing high school, going to college in New York City, becoming a writer. Desperate for money, she takes a job 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 Big Moose Lake, Mattie discovers that the letters could reveal the grim truth behind a murder. Set in 1906 in the Adirondack Mountains, against the backdrop of the murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, this Printz Honor-winning coming-of-age novel effortlessly weaves romance, history, and a murder mystery into something moving, and real, and wholly original.

Mattie Gokey dreams of a life where she is not bound by the confines of her small Catskills town. This beautifully worded historical fiction novel, A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly explores feminism, education, familial duty and the crossroads between being a girl and a woman.

If it was possible to get a crush on a book, I would doodle little hearts with A Northern Light inside. I remember finishing A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly and having an overwhelming need to talk about it with someone, by talk, you all know I mean gush. Luckily, my dear friend Kristen, of Bookworming in the 21st Century was on google-chat and had read the book. While talking, she came to the conclusion that A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly is the Anne of Green Gables of our time, in that this is a YA classic, not that the books share many similarities. I concurred with her, as I felt this book begs me to cherish it and read it over and over again. I won’t discuss too much of A Northern Light, only some elements which stuck out in my mind. Also, I would like you to discover how great this book is without me giving everything away.

Mattie is someone I think you, dear reader, can relate to. She has a torrid love affair with the written word and books.

“What I saw next stopped me dead in my tracks. Books. Not just one or two dozen, but hundreds of them. In crates. In piles on the floor. In bookcases that stretched from floor to ceiling and lined the entire room. I turned around and around in a slow circle, feeling as if I’d just stumbled into Ali Baba’s cave. I was breathless, close to tears, and positively dizzy with greed.” – pg. 199

I am sure you can understand that feeling. We’ve all been there when it comes to piles and piles of books.

Mattie is often described as a writer. She has these stories in her head which aren’t all happy stories, yet remain perfectly valid. In order to accomplish her dream, however, she may have to forgo marriage. It is unfortunate, but women of this time period had to make difficult choices between career and love. A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly does not celebrate domestic love, however, it does not condemn marriage. It simply acknowledges the tradeoffs.

“And I knew in my bones that Emily Dickinson wouldn’t have written even one poem if she’d had two howling babies, a husband bent on jamming another one into her, a house to run, a garden to tend, three cows to milk, twenty chickens to feed, and four hired hands to cook for. I knew then why they didn’t marry. Emily and Jane and Louisa. I knew and it scared me. I also knew what being lonely was and I didn’t want to be lonely my whole life. I didn’t want to give up on my words. I didn’t want to choose one over the other. Mark Twain didn’t have to. Charles Dickens didn’t.” – pg. 274

Perhaps my absolute favorite thing about A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly was Mattie’s voice which was incredibly strong. I feel as though she is a dear friend, I could hear her perfectly in my head as I read Donnelly’s words. Mattie is eloquent, level headed, and mulls over her decision. She is right on the cusp on womanhood and at a crossroads in her life. Weren’t you like this when you were a young adult? Perhaps you were a bit impulsive, but I am willing to bet you had to make decisions such as whether or not to go to college, what college? The good boy or the bad boy (or partner)? A Northern Light is in my top 20 of all time. I absolutely will re-read A Northern Light as it is one I cannot stop thinking about.

I will leave you with a quote I thought poignant yet amusing.

“As I quickly patted my hair back into place, it hit me: Emily Dickinson was a damned sneaky genius.

Holing up in her father’s house, never marrying, becoming a recluse — that had sounded like giving up to me, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed she fought by not fighting. And knowing her poems as I do, I would not put such underhanded behavior past her. Oh, maybe she was lonely at times, and cowed by her pa, but I bet at midnight, when the lights were out and her father was asleep, she went sliding down the banister and swinging from the chandelier. I bet she was just dizzy with freedom.” – pg. 273 – 274

Quick discussion question – if you had to choose between being truly great and love, which would you choose, why?

Other Reviews of A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly:

Things Mean A Lot
Green Bean Teen Queen
Two And A Half Book Lovers
The Book Smugglers

Other Books by Jennifer Donnelly:


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April is in her 30s and created Good Books And Good Wine. She works for a non-profit. April always has a book on hand. In her free time she can be found binge watching The Office with her husband and toddler, spending way too much time on Pinterest or exploring her neighborhood.

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About April (Books&Wine)

April is in her 30s and created Good Books And Good Wine. She works for a non-profit. April always has a book on hand. In her free time she can be found binge watching The Office with her husband and toddler, spending way too much time on Pinterest or exploring her neighborhood.


  1. I've been hearing a lot of good reviews about this one lately, which is lovely because I wasnt' sure if I'd like it.

  2. geekyreads says

    You make this one sound so good, with the comparison to Anne! It`s on my TBR list now.

  3. Love. Always love.

  4. Thanks for including my link, April! I'm so glad you loved the book as much as I did. Like you, I thought that passage on Emily Dickinson was fantastic.

    As for your question… I don't know. Love means the world to me, but so does my intellectual life. I'm just SO glad that a choice is no longer required of every woman.

  5. great review, and I LOVE what Kristen said about it being the Anne of Green Gables of our time, I can definitely agree with that.

    Reading your thoughts and all those quotes makes me wanna read this again 🙂 I might have to one of these days. Jennifer Donnelly is amazing, I can't wait for you to read Tea Rose!

  6. alipasta says

    Ah. I'm so glad you were finally able to read this one. And that you enjoyed it like I did. It's nice to see that our ability to like the same books is still there. 🙂

  7. JessiKay89 says

    So glad you loved this one! I read this last summer and have been telling everyone I know about it. Great review! 🙂

  8. I could swear that you'd read this before April? Oh I loved this book too it was really amazingly beautiful and I loved Mattie because she was such a strong person.

    I know how you mean about having a book crush… it felt so real.

    As to your question: if you had to choose between being truly great and love, which would you choose, why?

    Tough question. Does being truly great mean that you are lonely? I guess not in this world now so much – Emily Dickonson I guess was a prisoner of her time and gender.

    I guess in life I just want to be unhappy – I don't want to be considered a genius but remain unhappy for the rest of my life. What's the point? I'd rather just find love somewhere, rather then admiration perhaps… and be happy. With love you can still be a great person why give up one for a higher ideal?

  9. Michelle says

    I keep picking this book up, meaning to read it and just never get around to it. But I sounds like I better do so immediately. Loved the review!

  10. TNBBC Super Mod says

    Hey, check my blog! I gave you an award –


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