The blending of fact and fiction is the basis for the novel A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly. Set near the Adirondack Mountains, the story takes on the enormous task of telling two stories at the same time. Donnelly intrigued by the actual murder of Grace Brown, an unmarried pregnant girl, by her lover Chester Gillette, encompasses the life of the fictional character Mattie Gokey.
As the protagonist, Mattie is a superb fictional character. Her value system and pride in her work come from her mother who passed away a year before the beginning of the novel. The story is told through Mattie's eyes as she tries to be everything to everyone around her. In search of an education which will provide options for her future, she struggles with promises that she made to her mother and the desires she keeps safely guarded within her own heart.
Mattie has faced so many difficult junctures in her life: nursing her cancer ridden mother unto her death; taking the responsibility of her younger siblings; studying for college examination tests; cleaning her rich aunt's house for no pay; and finally working at a hotel to make extra money. Too much for most girls, but not for Mattie. With each new challenge, Mattie digs in and musters the courage to face it head on.
Many characters in the story impact Mattie as she develops into a young woman.
Weaver Smith, her studious black friend, challenges her mind and endangers her spirit when he fights racism. Mattie provides the money for him to find his way to college and better himself.
Miss Wilcox, her teacher and mentor, offers Mattie opportunities and explains the importance of never giving up hope.
Her friend Minnie with her husband and new babies allows her to see the happiness and angst of a young couple with so many responsibilities. Would her life with Royal be the same?
From Emmie Hubbard and Weaver's mother, Mattie finds that connectedness can come from any two people, working together to make life better for all.
Royal Loomis, the local Don Juan, draws Mattie to him; however, eventually unlike Grace Brown, Mattie can see that he is using her to get what he wants: her share of the land.
Most of all, Mattie grows through the attachment to Grace Brown. When Grace was leaving with Chester on the boat outing, Grace asked Mattie to destroy the letters that she had written Chester. Once Mattie's learns that Grace died, she reads the letters in the room with Grace's corpse and in her bed at night. The struggles and problems that Grace encountered because of her love for Chester haunt Mattie. Chester used Grace and she never realized it. Mattie knows that Grace's death was not an accident.
Finally, Mattie determines that she has to take her chances and go find her own way in life. She recalls in her memory what Grace Brown wrote in her last letter:
I have been bidding good-by to some places to day; there are so many nooks, dear, and all of them dear to me. I have lived here nearly all my life. Oh, dear, you don't realize what all of this means is to me. I know I shall never see any of them again.
Ironic words that now apply to Mattie's life as well.
After leaving notes for family and friends, Mattie thinks of her family and how much she loves them. But now, to achieve her heart's desires she must get on the train. The conductor leans in for her:
I reach for his hand and clasp it. He hoists me on the southbound. To Amsterdam and Albany and beyond. To New York City. To my future. My life.