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Little Willow

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Roundtable: A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

In 1906, a young woman named Grace Brown lost her life in the Adirondacks. Nearly a hundred years later, Jennifer Donnelly wrote a novel entitled A Northern Light set in that time and place. Though sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey and her family are fictitious, their plight is not. As the oldest daughter in the family, Mattie acquired a lot of responsibilities when her mother passed away and her older brother left. When Mattie becomes employed by a lodge on Big Moose Lake, Grace Brown's murder becomes a subplot, but it is never the main focus of the book. This is Mattie's story from start to finish - and what a story it is!

A Northern Light is the January 2009 selection for readergirlz. Seven readergirlz ladies - postergirlz Little Willow, Miss Erin, Shelf Elf, and HipWriterMama, and readergirlz divas Lorie Ann Grover, Melissa Walker, and Holly Cupala - gathered together virtually to discuss the book at length.

Little Willow: What was your basic impression of the book?

Lorie Ann: I was amazed at the plot arrangement and beautiful literary qualities of the work. I knew this would gain notice and awards, and I'm so pleased it did! When we began rgz, I wanted A Northern Light to be featured.

Holly: I loved how every thread contributed toward Mattie's final decision – so beautifully, intricately drawn – and Jennifer shows us the light alongside the dark. Nothing is as it seems. Secrets abound. People have been telling me for a long time to read it, and I'm glad I finally did!

Miss Erin: Same here, Holly - I'd had several people rave about it to me, so at last I picked it up. I thought it was beautifully done, pretty much perfectly written, and a book I can definitely see myself reading multiple times.

HipWriterMama: I loved this book. Mattie reminded me of a gentler and more uncertain Jo March. I liked how Mattie was able to see and "accept" the flaws of her family and friends and want more for them. And, for herself. Beautifully written book with excellent use of plot and supporting characters to show Mattie's growth.

Melissa: The idea of an epic crime as the dark back story for Mattie's coming of age moments really intrigued me from page one.

Shelf Elf: This is the sort of book that made me sigh happily at the end. It felt old-fashioned to me, in a totally satisfying way. It already reads like a classic story.

Little Willow: Did you like how the narrative flipped back and forth between Mattie working at the time of the murder and the events beforehand?

Lorie Ann: Yes, I thought it was genius! And how she let us know with a word entry if we were back in time or current. I was propelled by several mysteries because of the structure.

Shelf Elf: I'm not always a fan of this type of "then / now" structure, because I'm usually more interested in one thread of the narrative than the other, so I can find it frustrating. In this case though, I thought it helped to increase the tension in the story.

Miss Erin: I definitely agree about it upping the tension. It felt so murky and confusing (not in a bad way) at first, but as I went things became clearer... It was brilliant, really, the way the author tied everything in.

HipWriterMama: I had to read the first few chapters a couple times to get used to the narrative. (Partly because I don't have the luxury of reading a books straight through, so I was a little confused in the beginning.) But, afterwards, I was impressed with how this narrative worked and helped the story flow. Truly a work of art!

Melissa: I liked this structure a lot. If we'd just seen Mattie at the hotel, we'd have missed so much of her rich past and evolving character. Knowing her through and through -- and back and forth -- was really compelling.

Little Willow: Rest in peace, Grace Brown. Did any of you know much about the real murder case prior to reading this book?

Lorie Ann: I did not know anything about the actual event before reading the novel!

Shelf Elf: I thought that the story of Grace Brown worked in wonderful counterpoint to where Mattie was in her life. Grace was trapped and powerless and she seemed to wrestle with her own fear and uncertainty. She didn't really have choices. Mattie had obligations too, but she did have some power to direct her life. Having the real story embedded into Mattie's story deepened some of the themes for me.

HipWriterMama: I didn't know anything about the real story and was glad Jennifer gave Grace Brown life in this book.

Melissa: I'd seen this story in several places -- I read An American Tragedy one summer when I was in high school and really became interested in the case it was based on. And, of course, I love the movie A Place in the Sun that's based on Dreiser's novel.

Little Willow: What did you think of Mattie?

Lorie Ann: I love Mattie! It is her directness that is so appealing to me. I have pages and pages of the book flagged to discuss at the rgz group forum. Mattie's forthright like I hope to be always. I understand when she says authors are liars. She spurs me on to write the truth.

Holly: The author could have easily gone the cheesy Hollywood route and made Mattie a 21st century girl in a historical world – but she doesn't. Mattie's concerns are believable and even frustrating (for instance, why can't she see through that lout??), and her final choice rings true and deliberate and satisfying.

Little Willow: Very well-put, Holly.

Miss Erin: I loved her. Maybe because she felt similar to myself in a lot of ways - the love of words, love of learning, longing to be independent, etc.

Shelf Elf: I so wanted Mattie to have the courage to go after what she had always wanted. I thought that she was convincingly complicated. She was so clever and perceptive and yet she was also able to lose herself a bit as she got swept up in her first real romance. It's always uncomfortable for a reader when it looks like a character is going to make a really bad decision. There were times when I just wanted to shake her. (Don't marry Royal, Mattie! Don't!) Mattie is a character whose life you continue to imagine after you're finished the book. I picture her as a real mover and shaker and always a dreamer.

HipWriterMama: I loved Mattie and wanted to comfort her when she felt conflict about her promise to her mother or to Grace Brown; cheer her on when she was accepted into college and talked about her love of the books and Emily Baxter; beg her to run away from Royal; and hug her when she helped her family and friends in so many ways.

Melissa: I echo what's been said about [her], and I'll also add that I loved it when Mattie did small things for herself, like buying the notebook she so wanted and needed, even when money was very tight.

Little Willow: That was a very precious scene, as was the one that followed it. Did Mattie's story bring any other books or characters to mind?

Lorie Ann: Jennifer's The Winter Rose, of course. Tess of the d'Ubervilles as well. Maybe The Grapes of Wrath.

Little Willow: I think that Anne Shirley would cheer Mattie on.

Holly: That's funny - Anne Shirley didn't once cross my mind. Mattie's world has grit and ugliness where Anne's is, for the most part, idealized - but then they are both dreamers, wordsmiths, and unwittingly flirtatious! Hattie and Mattie are almost at the opposite ends of the spectrum – one book is about dreaming then acting, and the other is about acting, then dreaming. Which is sort of like Weaver and Mattie…hmmm.

Lorie Ann: Psst. I don't see Anne at all in Mattie.

Shelf Elf: I can see where you're getting Anne Shirley, both characters being such word-lovers, though Mattie doesn't have Anne's dramatic flair.

Little Willow: I don't think they are similar. Anne is a lot louder and bolder than Mattie. I just think Anne would encourage Mattie to go after what she really wanted. I recommend Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson (which we featured at readergirlz last January) to readers of A Northern Light.

Shelf Elf: I completely agree with Hattie Big Sky, in fact, I thought of that book often as I was rereading A Northern Light. I suppose it had a lot to do with the way that Mattie and her family struggled to make ends meet, to make it through the winter months just like Hattie on her homestead. Definite similarities in setting and the environmental challenges the characters were dealing with.

HipWriterMama: Little Women/Jo March in some respects.

Melissa: I was thinking Jo March too, and maybe a bit of Mattie Cook from FEVER 1793 (though I could be making the name connection). Mattie Cook had that same backbone in the face of great strife. And, though they're more than 100 years apart, the historical setting of both is similar in some ways.

Little Willow: Would you rather have a big family, like Mattie's, or a small one?

Lorie Ann: Oh, a small family is for me. Definitely. :~) A small family is really all I've known. I love pouring everything into a limited number of people. Does that make sense?

Little Willow: Completely.

Holly: A big family would be fun, though for someone slightly on the introvert side, exhausting. I wouldn't want to be in Mattie's position, having so much family responsibility that following one's heart and dreams would also be a kind of betrayal. But then that's what it takes to do what you dream – take off the skins of expectation and become who you were meant to be. That in itself is a coming of age, big family or small. In my family, I was the youngest by far of three, so it was like having four parents! In some ways, that made me much more independent, but I care very much about their opinions. I had to get past that – worrying what they would think of me and my work – to write a story from my heart. So I could very much identify with Mattie.

Shelf Elf: [I'd rather have a] big family. I have almost as small a family as you can possibly end up with since both of my parents are only children and I have just one sister. So, no first cousins, no aunts and uncles. Small as can be. I've always wanted a whole gang of sisters. When I was younger, I used to think that having a bunch of sisters would give me more options. You know, an older and wiser sister to go to when I had questions about life, the universe and nail polish. Then, a slightly younger sister for when I wanted to play imaginative games that I was really too old to play anymore. Maybe a baby sister to read stories to and dress up. As kids, my sister and I lived in the country, far away from our friends, so we only really had each other. That could be good and bad. We were a bit like frenemies. Then we grew up.

HipWriterMama: I love the idea of a big family for the support during the good and bad times.

Melissa: I think a big family would be fun--mine's medium sized. Then again, I've heard of so many fights in big families that it scares me--but there's so much love too that I think it outweighs the drama most of the time!

Little Willow: Who was your favorite supporting character in A Northern Light?

Lorie Ann: Lou. She just cracks me up and breaks my heart.

Shelf Elf: Miss Wilcox. I loved the way she is described as looking so out of place in the old schoolhouse: "like some precious jewel put in a battered old gift box." I guess I liked the fact that she has secrets, that she doesn't really belong in the woods or in the city. She's a bit of tragic individual, but at the same time she's gutsy and principled and creative.

Little Willow: I really liked Weaver and his mama. They were good people, through and through.

HipWriterMama: Oh! I loved Weaver and how Mattie saw him. I just about cried every time Mattie mentioned how she could see Weaver years from now and she wanted him to realize his dreams. They brought out the best in each other.

Melissa: Oh, Weaver, Weaver, Weaver! I adored their word games and banter. I fell in love with him the first time he walked onto the page.

Miss Erin: Weaver, probably. He was one of the only people in Mattie's life who seemed to see something more for her, something better. But I was fond of Miss Wilcox, too.

Holly: Hard to choose just one – she had such a colorful cast, from her coworkers to the man at table six to Grace Brown in her letters. I think I would have to say Weaver, because he complimented her dreams by being a man of action and principle, and ultimately their choices are intertwined. Or Miss Wilcox. What I wouldn't give to have a peek at the library of Miss Wilcox.

Little Willow: Me too. What lovely poetry and literature she owns! Speaking of which, Mattie collects words like kids on the beach collect seashells. So do I! Do you have any favorite words?

Lorie Ann: I don't know! I shall think and make a list! Although, I do think of the shape of words. I like the circle shapes in the word HOPE because they are surrounded by strong straight lines. I like the shape of BLOOP. That is just very funny looking. Hmm. I'll be thinking.

Little Willow: I like the word hope, too. I like what it means, what it provides. I have a lot of favorite words, but if I were to list them all now, we'd be here for days! Here are a few: cat, believe, palindrome, lexicon.

Shelf Elf: Scrumptious, hodgepodge, lollipop, bumblebee. Oh, and cake!

Holly: Palimpsest. Munch. Naughty. And I have to chime in with Shelf Elf, with a slight variation: Cupcake.

Miss Erin: Obfuscation, serendipity, lovely. I find new favorite words all the time, though!

Melissa: Moon. It's such a big, glowing, all-encompassing word.

Lorie Ann: Moon was my very first word, Melissa!

Little Willow: I love the moon. I even have a favorite phrase of the moon. But let's save that for another discussion. I really want to keep talking about the book and the power of words, but, somehow, we've got to wrap this roundtable up.

Lorie Ann: Many thanks to the amazing Jennifer Donnelly for taking her words and adding such meaning to our lives as women and authors. Brava!

Shelf Elf: Brava times two! A story that champions the hidden beauty of words is guaranteed to please me.

We hope this roundtable discussion will get you to pick up A Northern Light (and, perhaps, a dictionary!) Please join us at readergirlz to talk about the book some more.

Shed even more light on the subject:
Discuss the book with other readers and the author herself at the readergirlz forum
Read the January 2009 issue of readergirlz
Browse through back issues of readergirlz
Bookmark the readergirlz website
Check out previous roundtable book discussions at Bildungsroman
Tags: books, postergirlz, readergirlz, roundtables

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