Teen Book Review: A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly


As promised before, I want to do a monthly teen book review. My goal is not censorship, rather awareness. If you are aware of the content in the books your pre-teens and teenagers are reading, it will allow you to have real discussions about the choices the characters make and the choices your teenagers will make. I also hope that this will help you decide what age to recommend these books to your child for free reading or for a class assignment. Because if we’re honest, maturity levels and reading levels vary from child to child. And that’s ok.

A short overview of A Northern Lights:

It is a Printz Honor Book, which means it is a runner up for the most prestigious award in teen literature. And rightly so. It is a well-written historical fiction novel that blends mystery, coming of age, history, and even a little romance. Jennifer Donnelly sets the backdrop of the the story in northern New York state in 1906. One of the plots of the book follows the historical murder that inspired An American Tragedy. 

The main character, Mattie Gokey, has seen a lot for her young years and has a mature understanding of the world, but she still feels the temptation of delusion and young love. As she comes into her own, she must strip away the false nature of others, and learn to pursue what she wants, even if others do not understand it. She is intelligent and though the novel is not a particularly difficult read, it does have some purposefully challenging vocabulary. Fortunately, most of it is defined for readers. Mattie dreams of being a writer and everyday she looks up a new word in her mother’s dictionary. Each chapter is titled after a new word she learns. She also engages in word wars with her friend Weaver to see who can come up with more synonyms. The narrator’s voice in the novel is one of its best features. Donnelly knows how to tell a compelling story through the eyes of her characters.

Content (Warning: Spoilers):

I would not consider this an edgy teen novel by any means. However, it does contain some language in the book. Not much, but enough to be mentioned. Mattie’s teacher is a progressive woman from the city who encourages her to keep writing and attend college. She is fired when they discover she is actually a well-known, and very controversial, poet. Mattie’s teacher does smoke quite often, much like I envision Daisy from The Great Gatsby. Though she is a positive character, the book shows her isolation and the cost of her choices.

A Northern Light also deals with sex in five main ways. The first is through unwed pregnancy. A young woman, Grace, visits the hotel Mattie works at with a man. Mattie notices Grace is upset, and later that day Grace is found drown and the man who accompanied her is assumed to have drown as well. However, his body is not found or retrieved. Before she left for the boat ride, Grace handed Mattie a stack of letters. Through these letters, Mattie unravels the real story of who the man was (he signed into the hotel with a fake name), what happened between them, and what proves to be his motives for killing her. One of the things she learns is that Grace was pregnant and hoping that the man, Chester, would marry her. Unfortunately, she was a lowly factory girl and he was looking for a way to climb the social ladder, via a wealthy young woman with status. This plot not only touches on the shame of unwed pregnancy in 1906, but it shows a very extreme set of consequences.

The second way the story deals with sex is through Uncle Fifty, who visits Mattie’s family on an irregular basis, usually on his break from logging on the rivers. He has a good heart and wants to help them, but he is also a drunk and regular at whore houses. His actions are presented as just a part of who he is at first. But, his addictions cause him to break promises, and as a result break the hearts of his nieces.

Later, when Mattie is working at the Glenmore hotel, there is a particular man who repeatedly makes crude, sexual advances toward the serving girls. He even goes as far as to reveal his erect penis. The girls are afraid to tell their boss because their fathers would find out and not allow them to work there anymore. They decide to teach the pervert a lesson so he will stop. They lure him into the woods and trip him in a big pile of dog poop. They do not have any more future problems out of him. This part made me think about how common sexual assault and abuse is in our culture. Many times, it is by a step parent or relative. Too many children are afraid to tell their parents or another adult what happens because they fear punishment or shame. I think this example is a reminder that as parents we need to be accessible to our children about all subjects, especially the sexual ones.

In the story, the local hottie, Royal, begins to show interest in Mattie. She gets swept up by his affection, even though the whole time she is wondering “Why her?” and rightly so. Royal is not a bad character, but he has some serious character flaws. He could care less about the things Mattie loves, like reading and writing. He is farm boy through and through; his real love is the land. And he is land hungry, not to mention vindictive and manipulative. He really just wants to marry Mattie for her father’s land. She does not realize this for a long time, but it comes to light. Royal does not seduce Mattie all the way, but he is very hands-on and unapologetically grabby. Mattie seems to have mixed emotions about this, as most young girls would. She is not fully comfortable with it, especially because it is disrespectful to her, yet it feels good physically, and it feels good emotionally to be wanted by someone so handsome. I think the sexual aspect of the story would be a great springboard for discussion of how girls should be treated in dating relationships. As a parent you can talk about what physical interactions are acceptable and what are dangerous.

The final, and most graphic sexual scene is the reason for Royal’s vindictive nature. Mattie wonders for a long time why he is so hateful of a neighboring family. The mother, Emmie, is widowed and has several children. She cannot pay taxes or keep them fed. One day Mattie goes by to visit her and finds all the children outside, even though it is a cold day. When Mattie peers inside, she finds Emmie bent over the stove and Royal’s father having sex with her. It is by far the most graphic sexual scene. While Mattie feels some compassion for a woman driven to sex in return for eggs and food, Royal only feels anger, having seem his mother, who figured out the situation, silently suffer.


The themes in the story are what I found most compelling. One of the biggest themes in the story is that of obstacles. Mattie must decide whether she is going to let her obligation to her family hold her back from her dream of college. Weaver must learn to appropriately deal with racism and not let it conquer or break his spirit. Emmie must find her inner strength to stand up for herself and her family, despite so many people thinking she is useless. Pa must overcome his grief for the sake of his family. Minnie must learn to be a newlywed with hungry, crying twins, and a house to keep up.

Donnelly also explores the question of women’s roles through her character Mattie Gokey. Women at that time were supposed to be housewives. Mattie desires something more: she wants to go to college and be a writer. However, despite her dreams, she still wants domestic bliss. That is why Royal’s advances are so tempting to her. She knows marriage and a family would ward off loneliness. She also feels like she cannot have both. Which makes sense with the role models she has witnessed. Before she became sick with cancer, Mattie’s mother was an incredible woman, but she gave up a lot to marry her father. Mattie also sees the way Minnie’s husband looks at her, especially after her twins are born, and she wants a man to look at her that way too. However, she also sees the struggles Minnie faces and the toll it takes. On the other side of things, her beloved school teacher is an edgy poet from a rich family, but her estranged husband is a foul man, worried about status, who plans to lock her up in an asylum. Mattie longs for both a happy marriage where she is loved and desired and the ability to chase her dream of writing. This tension would have been very strong in 1906, but it is a tension and a choice many women still face today, despite our culture’s boasting that you can have it all.


To summarize the story, Mattie is a young woman who has a lot of responsibility. Since her mother died, she’s been forced to step into caretaker role for her younger siblings and father. She struggles with this, especially when she learns that she has been awarded a scholarship to college based on her writing. Her father is not supportive and she is haunted by a promise she made to her dying mother. Mattie is able to raise money by doing extra housework for her teacher and working at the Glenmore hotel. Her father is against this at first, but when the money becomes a dire need, he gives in and allows her to work outside the home. She gives him money to pay off the mule he needed, but she also sets some aside for college and later for her marriage to Royal.

Royal begins courting her, or as they call it, “sparking” out of nowhere. He is a handsome young man with a love of the land. Mattie falls in love with the feeling of being loved and wanted and sets aside her hopes for college. While working at the Glenmore, Mattie gets sucked into the drama and mystery surrounding the drowning of Grace Brown. Mattie has Grace’s stack of letters, which reveal the truth of the situation. This mystery unwraps slowly through the novel. There are many scares, joys, and surprises along the way for Mattie. One is when she realizes that Royal really only wants her father’s land. They break off the marriage and at the end of the story, she decides to leave money for Weaver, Emmie, and her father. She then takes the remainder and moves to New York for college. It is a difficult decision, but it is the one readers know she should make from the very beginning. Even though there are bittersweet aspects, the story wraps up on a happy note.

The only thing that took some getting used to with the novel was the time frame. The narrator jumps back and forth in time chapter by chapter. This confused me at first. It also draws out much of the mystery and suspense of the plot. Once you get used to her forward and backward jumps in time, it is a very enjoyable and hard-to-put-down read.

If you have further questions or comments, please share in the comments below!


2 thoughts on “Teen Book Review: A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

  1. Nathana,
    I LOVE A Northern Light!!! I’m so glad you reviewed it. This certainly helped me figure out who to recommend the book to. I also love that you are reviewing YA lit. I’m very jealous that you have a library book club, we are too tiny to have one here. That’s ok though, I have a book club with my students.

    • Thanks Sarah! You would be an awesome book club leader! Large libraries with tons of cool services and groups are one of my favorite parts of living in a bigger city. I do miss the friendliness of small towns. How is your school year going so far?

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