A Northern Light is a story within a story. I thought both stories were equally compelling, although narrator Matty’s story gets the most real estate in the novel. She is a teenage girl in love with words. This theme reappears often, from the word of the day that she selects randomly from her treasured dictionary, then tries to incorporate into her everyday life, to the word duels she holds with her best friend, Weaver.
Matty’s family is poor. Her father struggles to farm their land in upstate New York with only his daughters to help out. Matty’s mother is dead and her brother, the eldest in the family, has run off to no one knows where. Matty desperately wants to go to college in New York City, but that’s forbidden by her father. To complicate matters, a handsome neighbor begins to show interest in Matty and she finds herself falling for him — and he has no intention of leaving their hometown of Eagle Bay.
In the parallel story, another teenage girl, a guest of the lakeside hotel where Matty is working for the summer, turns up dead after she and her beau went out for a boat ride. The boat is found capsized and there’s no sign of the young woman’s boyfriend. Curiously, the woman handed Matty a pile of letters before she went out on the lake and asked her to burn them. The letters are the key that helps Matty unlock the mystery of what happened that day on the lake, and they eventually help Matty to make a decision about her own fate and future.
It was only after I finished the book and read the author’s note that I discovered that the drowned girl’s story was true, and that the letters and their contents were the actual words written between this woman and her beau. I wish I had known that ahead of time, because I found it fascinating in hindsight to think about how the author weaved this true story into a fictional tale of another girl.
I really enjoyed this book. It was a bit of a departure from my normal taste, and even though I enjoy historical fiction, this story’s chronological and physical setting were quite different from what I generally seek out.
A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly