So, while my copy of Donnelly’s novel is called A Gathering Light, apparently the novel is called A Northern Light in the USA. I don’t understand why they have to change book titles. Does anyone know the rationale?
Whatever the book is called – I loved it. I didn’t even realize it fell into the category of teen fiction until I finished it and started reading about Donnelly.
A Gathering Light is the story of 16 year old Mattie who lives with her widowed father and three younger sisters on a farm in Adirondacks in 1906. Her older brother, Lawton, has left home after a fight with their father and the family doesn’t even know where he is. Life on the farm isn’t easy. Mattie’s family doesn’t have much money and Mattie isn’t the homemaker her mother was. Her father – since the loss of his wife – is stern and angry. Mattie has to juggle her responsibilities at home with her secret desire to go off to college and study to be a writer.
Donnelly’s novel does a number of things remarkably well. First of all, it captures a time and place beautifully. After a particularly disastrous start to her day Mattie recalls that her mother could “make breakfast for seven people, hear our lessons, patch Pa’s trousers, pack our dinner pails, start the milk to clabbering and roll out a piecrust. All at the same time and without ever raising her voice.”
Mattie is a wonderful character. I fell in love with her from the start – her kindness (when she feeds a couple kids from down the road, even though there’s barely enough food for her own siblings and father) and her determination and even her dreams – to leave her home and go off to New York City.
During the summer, Mattie goes off to work at the Glenmore, the finest hotel on Big Moose Lake. While there she meets a guest, a young woman, who hands her a bundle of letters and tells Mattie to burn them. Later that day, the woman is found drowned; her companion, a young man, is missing. It is these letters and the fact of the woman’s death that propel Mattie on her journey towards freedom and adulthood. Of course, it’s all much more complicated than that. The most handsome boy around, Royal, has his eye on Mattie. She can’t forget the promise she made to her dying mother that she’d look after her sisters and father and her teacher, the outrageously independent Miss Wilcox, is hell-bent on getting Mattie off the farm.
A Gathering Light draws some of its inspiration from a real life murder, but ultimately this is Mattie’s story. It’s impossible not to root for her.