Jennifer Donnelly wrote A Northern Light, basing it on the actual murder of a Grace Brown. From the author's research, this delicious novel came forth.
The story involves a number of issues that confront teenagers today despite the fact that the novel is set in the North Woods or Adirondack Mountains in New York state in 1906. The fictional female protagonist Mattie Gokey has major decisions to make in her life. On the other side of the story is a factual murder and trial.
The story is full of symbolism. The narrator Mattie aspires to a college education, a difficult dream for her time and social class. Her "word of the day" plan represents her desire to fulfill her potential. She does not just learn the word, but she uses and even discusses it with her friend Weaver. The first word chosen in the story comes from Mattie's sister, Beth.
'Tommy, what's the meaning?' Mattie asks.
'A word that means to break out into a passion...snappish, peevish, irritable,' he read.
Isn't that just perfect? A new word. Bright with possibilities. A flawless pearl to turn over and over in my hand, then put away for safekeeping. [Mattie's thoughts]
Several of the characters symbolize aspects of society that rang true in 1906. Weaver Smith, a black boy, also aspires to an education. Although he studies and works just like Mattie, he is black and suffers many of the indignities poured on any black boy's spirit.
One of the guests said there was a fight. 'Were you in it?' asked Mr. Sperry, the sheriff.
Weaver lifted his chin, 'Yes, sir, I was. They called me nigger.'
Mr. Sperry took Weaver's chin in his hand and grimaced at thedamage. A cut eye that was already blackened. A nose...broken.
'It's not right sir. I shouldn't be called names. Shouldn't catch a beating, either. Shouldn't have to stay in the kitchen either. Once I get to Columbia, once I'm a lawyer...'
Weaver's character brings racism to the story that Mattie understands but cannot fathom the reasons behind it. To her, Weaver is just a boy with high dreams.
Grace Brown, the murder victim, gave Mattie some letters before she left to go on a boat ride. She ask Mattie to burn them. After Mattie learns of Grace's death, she decides that she will keep the letters. Each letter portrays the desperation that Grace feels because of the rejection of her lover who eventually murders her.
In Grace's last letter, she seems to know what is going to happen to her. She remains hopeful that her lover will marry her; but in her heart, she knows that will not happen. Does she feel that her life is nearing its end?
I know I will never see them [family] again...If I come back dead, perhaps if she does know [Grace is pregnant.], she won't be angry with me. I will never be happy again, dear. I wish I could die.
Mattie's realizes that Chester Gillette, the lover, killed Grace. From this knowledge, Mattie is inspired to leave her present life and go out in search of the happiness that Grace never found. Life's miseries and trials will not hold Mattie back. She gives the letters to the sheriff; says her goodbyes; and gets on a train heading toward her future.
I reach for his hand [the conductor] and clasp it. to New York city; to my future. My life.
Mattie's clasping the conductor's hand symbolizes her leap into the unknown. However, whatever comes, Mattie will live for Grace who never had that chance.