A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly; Review

by Madeleine Rex

Title: A Northern Light

Author: Jennifer Donnelly

Published: April 1st, 2003

Number of Pages: 400

Rating: 4/5


Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey has big dreams but little hope of seeing them come true. Desperate for money, she takes a job at the Glenmore, where hotel guest Grace Brown asks her to burn a bundle of secret letters. But when Grace’s drowned body is fished from the lake, Mattie discovers the letters reveal the grim truth behind a murder.

Set in 1906 against a backdrop of the murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, this astonishing novel weaves romance, history, and a murder mystery into something moving, real, and wholly original. [From Goodreads]


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.

“Won’t you sit down and have your lunch, Mattie?” Miss Wilcox asked.

But eating was the last thing on my mind. And I didn’t see how Miss Wilcox could eat, or teach, or sleep, or ever find any reason to leave this room. Not with all these books in it, just begging to be read.


Jennifer Donnelly is one of the superior young adult authors out there. Her prose is rich and lovely and would be just as appealing to adults as it is to teens. Her protagonists are the ideal blend of strength and tenderness. I cannot begin to tell you how much I loved her novel, Revolution (but go ahead and read my review anyway). It earned 5 stars easily – heck, it earned a 10, but Goodreads doesn’t offer that (silly Goodreads).

A Northern Light is also fantastic and mesmerizing, though I surprised myself by giving it a four star rating. Honestly, it surpasses most other books I’ve rated 4 stars in the past. I suppose I gave it the slightly-less-than-perfect rating because I couldn’t help comparing it to Revolution. Still, don’t be scared away by the rating, but instead take my word for it when I tell you A Northern Light is one of the best books in the YA market. It’s so much deeper, so much more substantial than most YA novels, and any astute reader looking for a book full of genuineness and truth will appreciate it.

Mattie, the main character, is so, so, so great! She and I would be best friends if she were real. I hate how blissful it feels to become attached to a character while reading because it makes it even more painful to realize, when you’re finished, that you will never meet them. I’ve had many a cry over it. Anyway – she’s super cute. How could any of us Wordbirds resist someone who adores books and words as much as she does? And she’s an aspiring author! Heck, even if you didn’t like her, you’d love her fascination with words. Every day, she opens to a random word in the dictionary her mother left her and tries to use it sometime during the day. She’s expanded my vocabulary, that’s for sure!

Donnelly did a phenomenal job of transporting the reader into the very, very early 1900s. She described Mattie’s daily life so succinctly that I feel I could time travel there and handle myself just fine. As a reader, you almost reach the point of feeling like you belong there. You get comfortable in Mattie’s skin.

Family plays a huge role in Mattie’s life, particularly now that she’s the woman in the household. Her relationship with her father wrenched at my heart, particularly during his few moments of weakness. I adore her entire family. Her sisters, though secondary characters, are perfectly unique. I could almost always tell who was talking even when their names weren’t mentioned. Honestly, if you asked me who in this book was family, I’d have to say the entire town. They deal with each other constantly, and because of that and their familiarity with each other, they feel like a family. They compete, they have moments of tenderness and moments of harshness, they stand by one another, and there are a few black sheep as well. I could go on and on about how well Donnelly incorporated a whole town into this book.

The romance played a rather small role in the plot, but a huge one in Mattie’s development – in her quest to find her voice. I’m so happy with the way one part of it played out, but I have to admit I was disappointed she didn’t end up with my favorite suiter. Honestly, though, I wasn’t surprised. The ideal ending I had in my head was a bit too ideal to be believable, but it still would have been fun!

The main issue I had with the book was Grace Brown’s story. I loved how Donnelly tied it into Mattie’s life for a significant purpose, but aside from how it benefited Mattie, I was uninterested. I knew all along that I was supposed to feel desperately connected to the poor girl and her tragic circumstances, and I did pity her, but I didn’t see in her what others apparently have. It was too bad, because I’m sure that element would have enriched the book even more.

Mattie Gokey’s quest to find her voice, to find the courage to spread her arms and embrace her opportunities, is as inspiring as it is charming. I couldn’t resist her charismatic personality. Her feelings and actions ring so true they pierce your ears. This book is elegant and riveting. I recommend it to everyone.

2 Commentsto “A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly; Review”

  1. take my word for it when I tell you A Northern Light is one of the best books in the YA market

    yes, that is exactly what i am talking about! man, i get way too excited whenever someone reads this book and falls i love with it–it's like i've written it myself or something, lol. and man, even i wish mattie were real. sooooo bad. and i agree about the suitor thing–I WANTED HER TO BE WITH WEAVER–even though it was insanely unrealistic and everything. ah well. weeeeaverr<3

    and for some reason i wasn't too big a fan of grace brown's story either. it was certainly interesting, but it never tore me apart or anything. strange, that.


    I hoped that when she gave the ring back to Royal and went to see Weaver that she realized she liked him! I was disappointed when that did not happen, but I was rejoicing that she left Royal!

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