Friday, January 1, 2010

A Northern Light ~ by Jennifer Donnelly, 2003

I enjoyed Jennifer Donnelly's novel The Tea Rose and was eager to read this one. It's 1906 and Mattie (short for Mathilda) is 16. She has been accepted at Barnard College and manages to get a paid job at a hotel in the Adirondacks to save a little money. That summer a young woman is drowned by her lover, a murder that was the basis for Theodore Dreiser's novel, An American Tragedy.  Donnelly grew up hearing this true story from her grandmother and was fascinated by the young woman who died.

I read this one for the Women Unbound reading challenge, looking for ways to connect the novel to the theme of feminism and women's studies.  Mattie's father couldn't see any reason for a girl to go to college and become, of all things, a writer.  But that's what Mattie wanted desperately to do.  She assigned herself a new word to ponder and use every day, and she paid attention to details.  Nevertheless, she was (almost) resigned to the inevitable, that she would end up like her friend Minnie, with children and a husband and responsibilities that would "keep her from reading for a good long time" (p. 97).  But still she thought of words, words, words.
"I thought of my word of the day.  Can a girl be unmanned? I wondered.  By a boy?  Can she be unbrained?"  (p. 78)
 The murdered girl was pregnant, putting her in an impossible situation in 1906 -- or even 1956, when I was 16 -- so I could understand the letters written to her lover, begging him to come and (in a sense) rescue her.  She wanted to go away with him, but it was obvious to the reader that the young fellow wasn't interested in marrying her and settling down.

Meanwhile, we are following Mattie's life that summer.  Her beloved teacher gives her a book of poetry that had been called "an affront to common decency," "a blight on American womanhood," and "an insult to all proper feminine sensibilities."  Mattie assumes it must have "curse words in it for sure, or dirty pictures or something just god-awfully terrible," but it was just poems.  But what poems!  Even though the author doesn't tell us so, exactly, it's obvious the poems might give women ideas.  (These paragraphs are from pp. 207-208).
"One was about a young woman who gets an apartment in a city by herself and eats her first supper in it all alone.  But it wasn't sad, not one bit.  Another was about a mother with six children, who finds out she's got a seventh coming and gets so low spirited, she hangs herself.  One was about Penelope, the wife of Ulysses, setting fire to her loom and heading off to do some traveling herself.  And one was about God being a woman instead of a man.  That must've been the one that made the pope boiling mad."
And then Mattie thinks the unthinkable, and it's WAY outside the box!
"Jezzum ... What if God was a woman?  Would the pope be out of a job?  Would the president be a woman, too?  And the governor?  And the sheriff?  And when people got married, would the man have to honor and obey?  Would only the women be allowed to vote?  Emily Baxter's poems made my head hurt.  They made me think of so many questions and possibilities."
And that's why the book was so very dangerous -- to the status quo.  I rate this one 9 of 10, an excellent book.


Unknown said...

Yay, I love this book. My students have loved the book as well. It always amuses me that they want Mattie and her best friend to hook up at the end, which, I think, says more about the world we live in now than what Donnelly was trying to say.


Bonnie Jacobs said...

Yep, I'd say expecting Mattie to marry – or even date – a black guy in 1906 is a bit unrealistic and it does reflect today's world. Still, I'm glad you told me because that tells me that we've come a long way in the past hundred years.

Helen's Book Blog said...

Thank you for a great review. I will definitely recommend this one to my students