Jennifer Donnelly, the author of A Northern Light, spent a good deal of her childhood in the area that serves as the setting for the story. The setting is the area around the Adirondack Mountains in New York State. The protagonist, Mattie Gorkey, a sixteen year old girl and the story's narrator, labels vast mountains the North Woods. The first sentence of the story provides the initial setting:
When summer comes to the North Woods, time slows down.
From this sentence, the reader knows that it is summer and near the North Woods.
In the next paragraph, Mattie gives more information. She establishes that part of the story will take place at a resort hotel called the Glenmore. Mattie will work there. Big Moose Lake represents a part of the murder mystery. In addition, the reader learns that the time of the story begins in July of 1906.
As I stand here on the porch of the Glenmore, the finest hotel on all of Big Moose Lake, I tell myself that today---Thursday, July 12, 1906 is such a day.
Most of the chapters alternate from the spring of 1906 to the summer of the same year. The chapters, which take place in the spring and usually in or around Mattie's home, are always labeled with a "word of the day." Mattie ambitiously likes to add a new word to her vocabulary each day. She does visit several other places in the surrounding area: Minnie's house, the Loomis farm, Miss Wilcox's home.
Chapter Two illustrates this alternation of settings. The word of the day is fractious and Mattie will work it into the story in some way. This chapter takes place at the Gokey home. Since the death of her mother a year ago, Mattie has had to take over most of her mother's responsibilities.
The other chapters present the action during the summer and are concerned with the hotel, its guests, and the death and disappearance of two of the guests. Mattie becomes involved through a strange set of circumstances that contribute to her race to maturity at the end of the novel.
This is a delightful book with an interesting approach to the setting. Each chapter brings a new set of interesting characters and events for the heroine.