Tuesday, April 13, 2004

A Northern Light

Donnell, Jennifer. 2003. A NORTHERN LIGHT. San Diego: Harcourt. ISBN 0803727356 [Suggested Grade Levels 7 and up]

Undecided about whether she should attend college and be a writer against the wishes of her father and boyfriend, sixteen-year-old Mattie takes a job at a hotel where the death of a guest renews her determination to live her own life.

Donnell sets this ambitious coming-of-age historical novel in upstate New York in 1906, and she chooses as a backdrop a story which includes the murder of a pregnant young woman (the same true crime story that inspired Dreiser's An American Tragedy). The story unfolds as Mattie, a waitress at an Adirondack hotel, shares the events of the day that the body of a young hotel guest is discovered. As she learns Brown's story, her narrative shifts between the goings-on at the hotel and her previous year at home: her relationship with her harsh, remote father; her obligation to care for her younger siblings; her pain at being forbidden to accept a college scholarship which will take her away from home. A true lover of learning and language, Mattie chooses to begin the chapters that are told in flashback with a “word of the day”, which she seeks out from a dictionary with hopes of improving herself. Donnell’s attention to the secondary characters is notable; they are well developed and help strengthen the work as well as reflect the limited choices available to women and people of color at that time. Though Mattie ultimately realizes she cannot live her life for others, her heart breaks with the guilt she must carry, and her pain is poignantly portrayed.

Teens could research the 1906 case using both the related books listed as well as primary source documents. From this research, they could script a scene from the trial from either the perspective of the prosecuting attorney or the defense attorney.

Other stories about the Grace Brown murder:
Dreiser, Theodore. AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY. ISBN 1931082316
Grunwald, Lisa. LETTERS OF THE CENTURY: 1900-1999. ISBN 0385315902

By Rose Brock

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