Caroline the Future Librarian

Caroline Davis | LIBR 265-10 | SJSU | Wrenn-Estes

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

Title: A Northern Light
Author: Jennifer Donnelly
Publisher: Graphia
Date: September 2004
ISBN-13: 9780152053109

Plot Summary: Mathilda “Mattie” Gokey (called Matt by her closest friends) has had to take care of her large family ever since her mother died.  She loves writing fiction, and, encouraged by her teacher, Miss Wilcox, she has harbored the dream of attending Barnard College in New York City.  Even though she has been accepted to the school and offered a full scholarship, she knows that her family can’t afford to lose her – and she can’t even afford a train ticket to the city, and she might not even finish high school if her father keeps making her stay home and work.  Over the summer, she is employed at the Glenmore, a hotel on Big Moose Lake.  A guest named Grace Brown asks her to burn a packet of letters, but after Grace’s body is found in the lake after she went out boating with the man she was traveling with, Carl Grahm, Mattie can’t bring herself to destroy them.  Why are the letters addressed to Chester Gillette, not Carl Grahm, and what if Grace’s death was murder?

Critical Evaluation: A Northern Light manages to weave together multiple genres: mystery, historical fiction, and even true crime – the murder case that Mattie gets caught up in is based on an actual event that took place in 1906, and unlike Theodore Dreiser, who wrote about the case in his classic novel An American Tragedy, Donnelly chooses to keep the correct names and locations, even using some of the actual letters that were used in evidence during the trial.  The novel shifts back and forth in time, between Mattie’s summer on the lake, where the crime is unfolding, and the year before, when she had to help her father run the household and was accepted to Barnard.  Mattie, a writer, is a lover of language and has a practice of looking up a word in the family dictionary each day and teaching her siblings what it means, which Donnelly has a clever way of connecting back to the plot.

Reader’s Annotation: Mathilda “Mattie” Gokey is working at the Glenmore Hotel on Big Moose Lake for the summer, hoping to earn enough money to attend Barnard College in New York City.  When the body of one of the hotel guests is found in the lake, Mattie may hold the key to the mystery.

Author Information: “Jennifer Donnelly is the author of three novels: A Northern Light, The Tea Rose, The Winter Rose, and Humble Pie, a picture book for children. She grew up in New York State, in Lewis and Westchester counties, and attended the University of Rochester.

Jennifer lives in Tivoli, NY with her husband, daughter and two fat rats, who were bought as dog substitutes when the family’s last greyhound went over the rainbow bridge, but have since become beloved pets in their own right…but still, it all feels a bit Addams family. As a child, Jennifer loved to write and often inflicted really dreadful poems and stories on her family and friends. She loved to read, too, and the high point of her grade-school week was a Saturday trip to the library.” (Source)

Genre: Mystery, Historical Fiction

Curriculum Ties: N/A

Booktalking Ideas:
1) Do you think there is a similarity between Mattie’s relationship with Royal and Grace’s relationship with Chester?
2) Talk about how Mattie’s vocabulary exercise connected with the plot.
3) Compare A Northern Light to the book An American Tragedy or the film A Place in the Sun, also based on the 1906 Big Moose Lake murder.
4) Think of other fiction titles that incorporate real historical events.

Interest Age: 12 and older

Challenge Issues: mild profanity

Challenge Defense Ideas:

• Become familiar with the book and its content.

• Refer to the collection development policy of the library, if none, see here to develop one right away.

• Refer to reviews from School Library Journal and Booklist available for viewing on

• Try to get reviews of the book from teens who have read it.

Selection: I wanted to add more mysteries to my collection, and chose this one because of the historical setting, and because it is based on a real murder.


Jennifer Donnelly’s website.


May 14, 2010 - Posted by | Books | ,

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