A Gathering Light (by Jennifer Donnelly)

19 08 2011

A Gathering Light – aka A Northern Light in the USA – is a deeply intelligent historical novel, heartwarmingly disguised as a coming-of-age story.  It deserves all the accolades it has received, from Carnegie Medal to Printz Honor book and then some. Multi-layered is an adjective often (mis-)used when describing a book, but in the case of Jennifer Donnelly A Gathering Light, there are more layers than a Caramel Buttercream & Maple Syrup Layer Cake.

Just like Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy it takes its inspiration from an authentic – and sensational at the time – murder case: the murder of Grace Brown at Big Moose Lake in the NY Adirondacks. But, unlike Theodore Dreiser who decided to focus more on the murder case itself and the ‘tragedy’ of (male) Clyde Griffiths,  Donnelly uses the letters that Grace Brown wrote to Chester Gillette (and in which her personal tragedy is slowly unfolded), as a springboard to focus on a 16-year-old girl with ambitions and hesitations,  but above all: brains and feelings . While the latter was sort of expected of a girl in the early 20th century, with marriage and a string of kids as the inevitable result of ‘sparking’, the former was much less expected, let alone tolerated.

With pictorial prose Donnelly takes us by the hand illustrating the harsh life in the North Woods in the early 20th century. We follow Mattie Gokey (or Mathilda Gauthier) along 2 parallel storylines that ultimately fuse together. The first one is of Mattie working up at the Glenmore Hotel, where she has been given a bunch of letters by a woman who’s called Grace Brown, pleading her to burn them. The woman is then found dead in the lake.  The second storyline, a year earlier, describes Mattie’s life and work on her father’s farm, taking care of her siblings, because their mother has recently died from ‘the cancer’. Mattie performs so well at school that she is offered a scholarship to Barnard College. Her father, though, will not let her go.  There is work enough here on the farm, he says, why would you want to go and work someplace else, and why on earth would you want to go to New York of all places to read or write books.  Working on the family farm, milking the cows, getting married to a decent man, taking care of the household…those are the usual things for a woman.

The consequences of insubordination and going against the grain is shown through the personal story of Miss Wilcox, Mattie’s teacher who sees the spark of genius and talent in Mattie and urges her to pursue it. Miss Wilcox is actually Mrs Emily Baxter, a poet, who published ‘indecent’ and ‘incendiary’ volumes of poetry – read: early feminist poetry. Her husband does not approve and tries to get her committed to hospital – which is what happened with women with a mind or a career of their own: locked up in insane asylums. Mattie soon comes to understand why some of the female writers she admires so much remained unmarried: Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson… Worse than the loneliness of living without a male companion would be the loneliness without the world of words, without access to pen, paper, books…

And yet, Mattie hesitates… she’s a teenager  – in a era when the word ‘teenager’ simply did not exist of course – and along with having to deal with the death of her mother, life on the farm, and a moody father, she has feelings for Royal Loomis, a handsome neighbor. Besides the fact that she (along with her best friend Weaver, who’s also defying a number of stereotypes) definitely has reservations about his illiteracy and his ideas about her reading (what’s the use of it, he asks her repeatedly), she can’t help but feel attracted to him. So there’s the dilemma for Mattie: a more or less secure world of farming and a family with Royal, or the definite insecurity of the world of words and books. Mattie doesn’t understand why she would not be able to have both, like the Charles Dickenses and the Walt Whitmans of the world. But of course, the fact that she is only a woman in a poor rural area does not bode well for her career opportunities, and is also (much like it was for Clyde Griffiths) an American tragedy.

A mere summary of A Gathering Light cannot do justice to the wealth of issues explored in this work. Besides the obvious levels of historical novel and romance novel, this work hides in its prose a multitude of themes and asks a number of pertinent questions. One of the issues that Mattie deals with as she reads the books she reads is how very few authors seem to be able to capture what the cancer that killed her mother smells like, or that you never read what giving birth really looks like (Mattie helps deliver her friend Minnie’s twins). Mattie pleads for a different form or realism than she’s so far read in her life and it’s that type of book that she wants to write herself. The realism Mattie aspires to shines through in the descriptive language Donnelly uses: understated yet powerful, insightful and clever, yet never belittling. The romance in the story is also put to the test of realism, as we are left to wonder along with Mattie, what the true reasons are for Royal’s courtship of Mattie.

Despite the fact that this is a story about ‘following your dreams’, it’s definitely the realism of doing just that, which is at the heart of the novel, not idealism (though the book is definitely one of hope and optimism), not fatalism (although it’s almost fate that Mattie & Grace Brown’s paths would cross).  When Mattie wants to find her voice, she will have to do so swimming against the current, and with the almost absurd realization that no matter what choices she makes, she’ll do so losing out on another front, and mostly this is because of her gender, and the limitations put on her because of unfair societal conventions.  Despite the fact that this is a book about a young woman growing up in the beginning of the previous century, a lot of the questions are still pertinent today, though: which decisions do you make if you realize that whatever you choose will have an impact on the rest of your future. The internal struggle of every teenager growing to become who they are can be a tragedy, but in the hands of Jennifer Donnelly it has become a triumph.



2 responses

19 08 2011

nice one, cat

15 01 2013
Revolution (by Jennifer Donnelly) « Ringo the Cat's Blog

[…] enchanted with two of Donnelly’s previous works, the cat expected to love Revolution equally as  much. Alas, there were too many kinks here […]

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