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The book A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly is best described as historical fiction. Donnelly's style and love of language shine through with the informal voice of Mattie. As the first-person narrator of the story, Mattie's intimate thoughts are revealed in sentence fragmentation and local idioms. "Cripes, Miss Wilcox, they're not guns, " was Mattie's description of books. This use of the regional colloquialisms transports the reader across time into 1906 rural New York rendering him able to experience the events of Mattie's life and the other intriguing characters.
Mattie's powerful voice generates a fascinating earthy language. The other fascinating characters are brought to life as they interact with each other: Weaver and his tenacity; Minnie and her pregnancy; and her younger sister Lou whose internal frustrations slowly well up to the surface.
Lou is hungry for attention, though. Any kind. They used to be inseparable. Now Pa looks right through her.
Sitting alongside the corpse with Mattie reading the intimate letters left for her to burn, Grace Brown's voice, crying out for justice, exerts an emotional hold over the novel's characters and the reader as well. Even though Grace is speaking through Mattie, the reader understands that this is both Mattie's and Grace's story. With Donnelly's brilliant use of alternating time in each chapter, the intensity and importance of both characters become evident. Through Grace's story, contained within her letters, Mattie learns that her own story must not follow the wishes of others. She gives words to Grace's lost life in order to live her own.
The author incorporates many figurative devices effectively. Her imagery is sophisticated. Her flawless metaphor for the words. "A new word. Bright with possibilities. A flawless pearl..." The comparisons bring an excellent effect to the descriptions.
The sky becomes an ocean of blue, so vast and brilliant you can't help but stop what you are doing.
Donnelly employs foreshadowing and symbolism to enhance the mysterious elements of the story. The interwining of the actual case of Grace Brown and Chester Gillette and the fictional story provides another layer of interest. The dialogue embeds the emotional depth which becomes almost visual for the reader. Love, rage, jealousy, despair, desire, passion--all unearth their way into the characterizations.
Donnelly communicates the tone of the story through the feelings and attitudes of Mattie. The lessons she learns of perseverance and listening to her inner voice, convey an atmosphere of hope. Despite the many dark events in the story, Mattie's confidence and optimism for her future permit the reader to know that she will reach her goals.
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