With summer heat and COVID-19 keeping me indoors, I have taken the opportunity to open the books on my shelves that I haven’t had a chance to read. Evidence of my tastes and growth over the years, my collection ranges from some of my first chapter books to classic works of literature. A few weeks ago, my eye caught on a book that falls somewhere in the middle: A Northern Light, Jennifer Donnelly’s award-winning novel for young adults.
Given that label, A Northern Light redeems a rather disappointing genre. I have found that many of the books classified as “young adult” are little more than a plot: a story unfolds, and once it concludes, I move on without a backward glance, without any meaning or memory to carry with me. Only the books that have taught me something — about the human heart, about other people’s experiences, about the possibilities latent in words and the world — have created a lasting impression.
A Northern Light proves itself to be just such a novel by touching upon matters that are, in the words of The New York Times Book Review, “rich and true.” The story of a young woman at the start of the twentieth century, it begins with a quote of resistance and ambition and a scene of deliberation and disorder. Such an opening brims with the promise of change — the promise of the protagonist’s growth, which will mirror the progress and upheavals of such an unparalleled century. We are immediately prepared to witness a journey and therefore a discussion of identity. Who is this girl, and who will she choose to become? As the book will make clear, becoming is an active process, one in which we are capable of and responsible for making decisions. It is our choices that determine our character.
This particular young woman, Mattie Gokey, is a sixteen-year-old whose home is the rural lake area of upstate New York. The daughter of a widowed farmer, Mattie is burdened with responsibility and taking care of things — the fields, the animals, and the members of her family, who have been left unmoored and vulnerable by the death of her mother. But though her body is that of a farmer, Mattie’s heart is that of a writer: she loves words — finding time each morning to pick out a new one from the dictionary — and feels most at home in a book. She keeps a journal of stories and dreams of becoming a published author. She is a character that other book lovers and aspiring writers can relate to and empathize with.
And like many of us, Mattie is not sure which path she should take. Mirroring her indecisive mind, the story alternates between the present and the past. As a result, many times we have access to limited information or, conversely, are given vague hints of what is to come that urge us on to the next page. We are often left to assemble the pieces and imagine the nature of an event or the motivation behind a character, but the book provides the necessary clues — we must simply be observant enough to recognize them. Like Mattie, we as the readers are forced to be an agent, reflecting and actively making decisions. The conclusion of Mattie’s story is therefore one that she makes but also one that we, too, must formulate.
Possessing soul and complexity, A Northern Light is much more than a plot. As Mattie’s life progresses, her experiences and choices give rise to a reflection on profound issues. In varying degrees, the novel addresses the power and privilege of education, the struggle between the demands of life and one’s dreams, the opportunity (or lack thereof) for women and African Americans, the burden of guilt and love, and the slanted shape that people’s voices give to the narrative of history. As Mattie grapples with understanding and expressing her own voice, the book asks us to think about whose stories are being told and to whose voices we should lend an ear.
The novel also provokes us to reflect on the role and power of books themselves. One of Mattie’s friends, a young man fulfilled by the life of a farmer, cannot fathom her passion for reading. He asks her, “Why do you always want to read about other people’s lives, Matt? Ain’t your own good enough for you?” Because he has no need for books, he sees no value in them; on the contrary, they strike him as a fabrication, a distraction from a person’s real life. Mattie is unable to respond, but not out of a lack of conviction. She simply doesn’t know how to explain to him that her own life is made richer by the thoughts and revelations of others, by the insights of those who view the world with a unique eye — and that she, too, wants to share stories and move people’s hearts. And yet, his words cause tears to spring to her eyes. Unwittingly, her friend has revealed a painful secret that she can’t admit even to herself: sometimes we don’t want to live the life we feel has been pushed upon us; sometimes we need an escape.
Sometimes, when we struggle, we seek out a cheerful fantasy in which all the loose threads are tied neatly together in a scene of bliss and justice at the end. Other times, however, we yearn for stories that match the frustration and melancholy weighing down our hearts. We all have moments when we draw comfort from accounts of life’s harsh reality because they reassure us that we’re not alone in our suffering. Once we’ve experienced the challenges of life, we want that truth to be reflected in the books we read, in the literature we go to for honesty, solace, and inspiration. Literature has the power to open our hearts and broaden our minds, to make us reflect and ask questions and even admit that we’re wrong. Because of that stimulating power, Mattie’s beloved teacher tells her that books are “a hundred times more dangerous” than guns. Guns are used for mindless violence, but guns are also used to pursue and enforce ideologies. Guns may injure the body, but words free and elevate the mind. This is why the American Founding Fathers, who rejected monarchy and feared tyranny, made freedom of speech the first amendment of the Constitution; this is why dictators of totalitarian regimes perpetrated the suppression of voices and the burning of books. Though for conflicting purposes, both sets of historical figures recognized that ideas are what inspire, empower, and equip people, are what make humans all that we are and all that we can be. By the end of A Northern Light, Mattie is beginning to realize the powerful role that books have played in her own life and the path to which they can lead her.
When I reached the last page of A Northern Light, I realized that I didn’t want the book to end. Though in the beginning I needed a few chapters to get acquainted with the characters and style, once I did I became immersed and invested. I read for two straight days and was left wanting more. At first I attributed that feeling to a flaw on the part of the book: it ended too abruptly, I thought, and there was more that needed to be told. A perfectionist and a romantic, I always want to know exactly whether or not my interpretations are correct and my expectations of a happy (or, at the very least, bleakly satisfactory) ending are met… but life isn’t like that. In accordance with its attempt to authentically portray a human story, neither is this book. But even among uncertainty and darkness, there is uplifting and indomitable hope.
The sign of a truly well-written and worthwhile young adult book is that even adults may enjoy and appreciate it. We are all at different stages of growth, and perhaps A Northern Light may teach you something, move you to connect to a character, or once again engross you in a good story. In the spirit of growth and aspiring for a better future, I leave you — hopefully the novel’s next reader — with a thought that the book left me: opportunities aren’t given; they’re taken. Please take this one.