A Northern Light
Jennifer Donnelly, author
2004
Printz Honor Book

I love books that draw me into their setting, that showcase women’s lives from different times and places. Therefore, I was immediately engrossed in 16-year-old Mattie’s life, her motherless family, the 1906 North Woods, and the mysterious letters that fell into her lap. The book alternates between Mattie’s memories of the previous spring and her current experience working at a big hotel near her home (the famous murder of Grace Brown is included–happening at Mattie’s hotel).

Mattie is one of those word- and book-loving characters who must write. Reminiscent of Anne, Emily, Jo March, and all the other (great!) similar characters who’ve gone before her, Mattie struggles to find her “voice” and to get to college so that she can really learn how to write. Championed by her single teacher, Mattie has already progressed far beyond most of her peers in her education and is smart enough to get into college. Her best friend is a black boy named Weaver who has similar aspirations.

Her community is a poor, rural community in the North Woods (think, Adirondacks), and that, more than her identity as a woman, is what is holding her back from pursuing her dreams. However, the author doesn’t make this point clear. While the poverty surrounding Mattie is undeniable, far more attention is given to what marriage and children will do to Mattie’s chances of reading and writing in the future. Courted by a young man who has no interest in anything but farming, raised by a father who must work to survive, and with no older women who take an interest in her other than her school teacher (who is “fast” and not a respected member of the community), Mattie fears she will end up slaving away to serve others and never fulfilling her dreams….

But, in Scripture, aren’t we commanded to serve others? I’ll be the first to admit that finding time to read and write with young children in the home can be a challenge! And, I obviously have the means to write via a blog; Mattie didn’t have enough money to buy paper and a pen, much less have the leisure time to pursue her dreams. But poverty is what was holding her back more than marriage/children/relationships. I found her decision to leave it all behind to pursue her dreams at the end to be a very predictable ending to this very feminist story.

Simply leaving it all to pursue dreams–isn’t that what much young adult or coming-of-age fiction is all about? I might have been okay with it if it weren’t for the fact that there isn’t one single happy marriage portrayed in the book. If there was only one currently married woman who’d taken an interest in Mattie and shown the joy that can come from being a wife/mother. If there was one portrayal of sex (in or out of marriage) that didn’t make the woman look like a victim and object of men. If there was one strong male character who wasn’t a similar misfit like Mattie.

In short, while the issues in this book exist, there is hope. When God created the world and marriage, he made them good. The fall has polluted everything, but there are still evidences of God’s goodness within his created order. The cultural mandate is not drudgery. If the main character is making a choice between relationship and vocation, then at least show us that she’s making that choice because she is called to do so, not because she’s escaping to the only place where a woman’s life can have meaning.

Some Possible Things to Note/Discuss with your YA

  • There is a somewhat brief sex scene; it is a very animalistic encounter viewed accidentally by the main character, so we see it through her shocked eyes and the result is disturbing. It does, however, illustrate that life is not like the movies and that extra marital affairs are devastating to the family.
  • The famous murder in the story is related to a young woman’s unplanned (out-of-wedlock) pregnancy. It might provide an interesting discussion jumping off point (this is an actual, historical story).
  • Is Mattie’s final choice defensible from Scripture? Why or why not? What would have made it better?
  • What is the view of love and marriage in this book? Is it in accord with Scripture? Why or why not?
  • Have you ever been, or do you know people personally who are, as poor as Mattie? How do you think that would affect your view of the world? How should we present the Gospel to that type of community?
  • Should everyone have the right to get an education? Why or why not? What do you think our role as Christians should be regarding this issue?
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