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In A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly, social pressures facing the main character, teenager Mattie Gokey, make life a struggle. From Mattie's intelligence and strength, springs a young heroine who wants more than a typical life in rural New York in 1906. In the story, the reader learns that women in this time had to make a difficult decision: career or marriage. Troublesome for a girl whose family almost exclusively depends on her.
Words are Mattie's tools, and with knowledge, she hopes to develop her own voice. According to Miss Wilcox, Mattie's mentor and friend,
Voice is not just the sound that comes from your throat but the feeling that comes from your words...you use what's inside of you.
Mattie's great desire to find her voice, to earn her independence, and to go to college: this at the heart of intriguing story. The story's alternating chapters from early spring to late summer center on the life-altering promise that Mattie made to her dying mother "...to stay and take care of the family." However, Mattie wants more from life.
Told with Mattie as the first person narrator, her inner struggles parallel the present day female teen. She wrestles with trust, self-image, jealousy, friendships, racism, secrets, poverty, and male/female relationships; all issues faced by today's young women.
Through the course of events, Mattie learns that the most significant sin one can make is to lose "hope." Fortunately, Mattie finds hope and never loses it. This knowledge encourages Mattie to keep a tight hold on her ambitions and dreams. From experiences with other characters, she learns trust and even dependence on the friendship of others.
The dominant philosophy of this beautifully written novel is giving voice to someone who feels she has no voice. Mattie learns to accentuate the possibilities of the future, and most importantly, never break away from her aspirations.
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