A Northern Light opens with a crisis. A young guest of the Glenmore Hotel is pulled from Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks after going boating with her lover. The young narrator, Mattie Gokey, a waitress in the hotel, is astonished to discover that the dead woman is Grace Brown, who earlier in the day had given Mattie a bundle of letters to burn. In the bustle of her daily duties, Mattie has forgotten about the letters in her apron pocket. Now she is struck by a mysterious complicity with the dead woman and an uncanny certainty that her own life will be forever changed because of the events that are unfolding.
The narrative moves back and forth between two timelines, one tracking Mattie's efforts to understand the circumstances behind Grace Brown's death through reading her letters, and one tracing the events in Mattie's life which led to her employment at the Glenmore Hotel. She is trying to find the financial means to attend Barnard College in New York City, where she will break free of her expected role as eldest daughter to a widowed father and fulfill her ambition as a writer. Each chapter is headed by a word-of-the-day that the young writer savors in an effort to deepen both her vocabulary and her understanding of the world.
Mattie introduces the reader to a day in the life of the Gokey family, and chaos reigns as she and her three younger sisters try to run the household. The central tensions of the novel are touched upon: Mamma's death from cancer seven months before, followed by the inexplicable disappearance of Mattie's older brother Lawton; Mattie's longing to go to Barnard College, where she has been offered a scholarship, challenged by a promise made to her dying mother; Mattie's desire to join her friends working at the Glenmore Hotel, countered by her father's disapproval and general denial of her need for further education; and the plight of Emmie Hubbard, a widow with seven children who seems to have gone crazy and can no longer adequately care for her home or children.
Mattie has two best friends, Weaver Smith and Minnie Compeau. Minnie left school at the expected age of fourteen and is married and pregnant when the narrative begins. Weaver is her school companion and word-dueling partner. The first freeborn son in his family, Weaver is headed to college in New York City. Mattie is also experiencing the first flush of romance as she is pursued by the handsome Royal Loomis, a man she can hardly believe is interested in her. Mattie's tendency to romanticize young love is evident when she flashes forward to the death of Grace Brown and envisions the young woman as the victim of a kind of Romeo-and-Juliet tragedy—the two lovers dead at the bottom of Big Moose Lake. When Mr. Eckler's floating grocery store/lending library arrives in Eagle Bay, he alerts Mattie to the availability of a new book, Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. Mattie discovers a beautiful composition book for sale and impulsively spends most of the money she has earned picking fiddlehead ferns on the extravagant purchase, even though she knows her father will punish her for doing so. She speculates that characters in books cannot change their fates, but wonders if real people may be able to.
Pa discovers that Mattie has spent the money she owes him on the expensive composition book. Without Lawton around for heavy chores, the farm is not producing as it once did and money is tight. Pa hits Mattie to punish her for wasting family resources. Mattie gets an acceptance letter from Barnard College, but wonders how she will pay for it. While housecleaning for her wealthy Aunt Josie, Mattie gathers the courage to ask her for the financial help she needs to get to college. Aunt Josie tells her she is as selfish as her brother for wanting to abandon her family; she need only read the Bible to understand God's intentions for her. Mattie also shares her plans to go to college with Royal, who claims he does not understand why she would want to do such a thing. He kisses her, and her identity and needs become even more conflicted. Weaver struggles with his identity when a white man assumes he is a porter at the rail station just because he is black. Minnie gives birth to a boy and girl, and Mattie helps with the delivery. At the Glenmore, Mattie draws parallels between her promise to burn Grace Brown's letters and the promise she made to her dying mother to stay at home to raise her sisters. She wonders how binding such promises should be.
Pa's brother Uncle Fifty shows up with a bundle of cash from a lumberjacking expedition. Weaver and Mattie take their exit exams to graduate from high school and Uncle Fifty is the first person besides Miss Wilcox, their teacher, to show enthusiasm for Mattie's plans to go to Barnard. He promises to give her the thirty dollars she needs to make the trip and get settled. He gives her a fountain pen and buys the other Gokey children lavish gifts. Miss Wilcox approaches Mattie's father about her successful exams and the importance of sending her to college. Pa blames Miss Wilcox for Mattie's inappropriate ambition, and tells Mattie that if she leaves the family to go to Barnard she will never be welcome back in his home. Mr. Eckler announces that Uncle Fifty has skipped town. Mattie realizes that her Pa is the only person in her life she can trust, and she is ashamed for wanting to leave him. Reading Grace Brown's letters, Mattie realizes Grace's beau Carl Graham—who took Grace out boating and has not been...
(The entire section is 2317 words.)