Module 10: A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

Book Cover Image:


 Image Credit: Campbell County Public Library. (2015)

Book Summary:

Mattie Gokey lives in upstate New York at the end of the 19th century, and does the best to fulfill the role of her deceased mother to her younger siblings.  Her father, distant and aloof since her mother’s death, does not understand Mattie’s desire for an education, and particularly does not understand her love of writing.  For Mattie, however, writing is the one part of her life that brings her freedom and exhilaration.   Her teacher encourages her to apply for a college scholarship, but even though she fills out the paperwork, Mattie can’t see herself actually leaving home and her family responsibilities to pursue a college education.  Compounding this feeling is the fact that she has a suitor, Royal, who seems to yearn for Mattie’s family’s land as much as for Mattie herself.  It seems to Mattie that a life of marriage and family has already been decided for her.

When her family’s financial situation goes from bad to worse,  Mattie convinces her father to allow her to take a summer job at a nearby lake resort.  There,  a young woman named Grace Brown makes an odd request of Mattie:  she hands her a bundle of letters and asks Mattie to burn them; a day later, Grace Brown’s dead body is brought back into the hotel.  She had gone boating with her companion — Mattie is unsure if his name is “Carl” or “Chester” — and it appears that both drowned.  Mattie can’t burn the letters; compelled to discover the story within them, she stays up late reading.  Within Grace’s letters, and Carl/Chester’s replies, Mattie learns the truth about a murder case.  Although Grace is now dead, her letters help Mattie to step out into a life of her own design.

 APA Reference of Book:

Donnelly, J. (2003). A northern light: a novel. New York: Harcourt.


The powerful story of how societal norms and expectations destroy one young woman’s life, and threaten to destroy another’s, captured me from the beginning of Donnelly’s novel.  In particular, the innocent, unsuspecting voice of Grace, revealed  through the letters Mattie reads, is unforgettable.  Donnelly’s style masterfully weaves together Mattie’s story, Grace’s letters, and the subplots about family and friends in the North Woods.

However, when I read the author’s notes at the end of the novel, and there discovered the truth of the Chester Gillette murder trial, and of how Donnelly came to learn of the story, my appreciation for this well-written, historically accurate novel grew.  The letters from Grace are not fictional, but based on actual letters that were presented as evidence during the trial.  Adding to the authenticity of the story is the thorough bibliography upon which Donnelly based the facts of the novel.  Donnelly notes that, “My grandmother, who worked as a waitress in a Big Moose camp in the twenties, says Grace Brown still haunts the lake.  Her letters will always haunt me.” (p. 383)  I would add that this novel, one of the most well-crafted I’ve read, will haunt me, as well.

Professional Review:

“Jennifer Donnelly’s first book for adolescents is a love story, historical novel, murder mystery, and coming-of-age tale all rolled into one engaging work of literature. The novel is based, in part, upon the sensationalistic true story of the murder of Grace Brown, whose body was discovered in the waters of Big Moose Lake, on the edge of the Adirondack Mountains of New York state. Donnelly uses this event to spark and shape an intricate story that is large in scope and powerful in design.

The year is 1906, and 16-year-old Mattie feels trapped. Her mother has died, her elder brother has fled, her father is emotionally distant, and she is now responsible for domestic chores on the family farm, including taking care of her younger sisters. These responsibilities interfere with Mattie’s desire to write. Her liberal-minded teacher, Miss Wilcox, encourages her to apply to Barnard College. Mattie fears, however, that even if she is admitted on scholarship, she will not have the money to go and, more important, will not have the courage to leave her father and sisters when she thinks they need her most.

Mattie’s dilemma is further complicated by Royal Loomis’s romantic interest in her. Mattie admires Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, and Charlotte Bronte, all of whom refused to give up their writing. . . . Despite this realization, Mattie feels safe and secure when she finds herself in Royal’s arms.

When money gets tight, Mattie convinces her father to allow her to spend the summer working at Glenmore, a resort a few miles up the road from her rural community in the Adirondacks. There, Mattie and her coworkers learn of the death of one of the patrons, a young woman who drowned while boating with her male companion, Carl. Just prior to her death, the woman, Grace, gives Mattie a bundle of letters and begs her to dispose of them. Overtaken by curiosity, Mattie reads the letters and learns the truth behind Grace’s relationship with Carl. This truth drives her to make a difficult decision regarding her own future.”

Review Source:
Glenn, W. J. (2003). A northern light. [A review of A Northern Light by J. Donnelly.]  Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 47(3), 265-265,268.  Retrieved from

Library Uses:

The Chester Gillette murder trial, the historical event upon which A Northern Light is based, was also the inspiration for Theodore Dreiser’s play, An American Tragedy.  In a high school library setting, create a rotating display of novels, plays, and nonfiction books that correspond to the time period being studied in history classes.  When the early twentieth century is the focus of study, make arrangements with the history teacher to booktalk this novel; if one of the literature classes is reading An American Tragedy, booktalk the novel there, as well.


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