Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2317
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 seen since—is really a man named Chester Gillette. She conveys this knowledge to the hotel manager, Mr. Morrison. A wire from Albany confirms that no such man as Carl Graham exists.
Aunt Josie intercepts a letter from the postmistress that the tax collector, Arn Satterlee, has written to Emmie Hubbard. Mattie overhears her aunt gossiping about Emmie's failure to pay back taxes and the imminent auction of her land. Mattie goes boating with Royal and realizes they are officially dating. She loves being in his arms. Others have caught onto their courtship and tease and envy Mattie. She is proud to be seen as Royal's girlfriend. Miss Wilcox invites Mattie to her home and offers her books, including one by a feminist poet named Emily Baxter, whom Mattie has heard is indecent. Mattie discovers the poems merely celebrate a woman's independence; she does not understand why they are so controversial. As she continues to read Grace Brown's letters, she realizes Grace was pregnant.
Mattie is now working for Miss Wilcox on Saturdays, organizing her books. She arrives one day to discover her teacher in a heated argument with a man. Miss Wilcox confesses the man is her husband, Teddy, whom she has left and who is trying to coerce her into returning to him. She also admits she is the scandalous poet Mattie has been reading—Emily Baxter. Mattie longs to tell someone about Miss Wilcox's true identity but remains loyal to her teacher. Royal makes sexual advances toward Mattie and promises her that his intentions are honorable, that he will marry her and he wants to buy her a ring. Mattie is concerned because Royal has never told her that he loves her; still, the pull toward marriage is strong. Mattie learns from Tommy Hubbard that his mother Emmie is upset because Arn Satterlee has set the date to auction her home. When Mattie goes to Emmie's house to console her, she discovers Emmie being sexually violated by Royal's father, Frank Loomis. She speculates that three of Emmie's children must have been fathered by Frank Loomis. Reading Grace Brown's letters, Mattie realizes Chester Gillette must have brought Grace to the Glenmore with the intention of murdering her.
When Pleasant the mule dies, Mattie finally gets her father's permission to work at the Glenmore Hotel in order to earn money for a new mule. Mattie is trained as a waitress and becomes acquainted with the hotel's employees and guests. Mr. Maxwell, a guest at the hotel who sits at table six in the dining room, exposes himself to Mattie and later leaves her a dollar tip. She is too embarrassed to talk about what has happened, but the other waitresses have likewise been harassed by him. Henry, a German under chef, leaves jars of milk on the stove and they explode. It comes to light that Henry has lied about his identity and that he was never a chef in a fine European restaurant. He is demoted to menial labor. Weaver is beaten up by three trappers after he stands up to them for calling him a nigger. The world beyond home seems dangerous to Mattie and she decides her place is in Royal Loomis's arms.
Reading Emily Dickinson, Mattie realizes all of the authors she admires are spinsters and wonders if marriage is incompatible with being a writer. She begins to mistrust her need for Royal Loomis and is further challenged by a visit to Minnie, who is struggling with her infant twins. Minnie's inability to cope is evident in the squalor of her home, and she is depressed and defensive, claiming to hate her own babies. When the trappers who beat Weaver are caught and brought to justice, Weaver's self-esteem is restored, and Mattie imagines the lawyer he will someday become. Mattie's entire family becomes violently ill with grippe and she must leave the hotel for a week to care for them. The cows are also ill from neglect and two die of infections. Royal and his mother come to Mattie's assistance and she feels so obligated to them that marriage again looms as her salvation. She accepts Royal's proposal and the ring he has chosen. She later compares her love for Royal to Grace Brown's misguided love for Chester Gillette.
Miss Wilcox/Emily Baxter sends Mattie a copy of her new book, Threnody, and a note with a five dollar bill inside. Her husband has followed through with his threat to expose her identity and she has lost her job at the school. She plans to flee to Paris before he arrives to take her back home. Mattie and Weaver borrow a horse so that Mattie can see her teacher before she leaves. She tells Miss Wilcox that she is not going to Barnard but intends to marry Royal instead, and Miss Wilcox is visibly disappointed. Weaver tells Mattie she may as well marry a horse. At the Fourth of July picnic, Mattie observes wives hanging on the arms of their husbands and witnesses an argument between Royal and his old girlfriend Martha Miller. Martha confronts Mattie with her belief that Royal is marrying Mattie because he wants her father's property, adjacent to the Loomis property. Mattie also learns that Royal was the one to inform Arn Satterlee of Emmie Hubbard's failure to pay back taxes, because he wants Emmie's property for himself. Mattie begins to acknowledge that Royal does not really love her—he has never said the actual words. Weaver confronts Mattie about her need to face the truth concerning her situation with Royal. Mattie has nightmares about Grace Brown.
Mattie and her friends at the Glenmore plot revenge on Mr. Maxwell for his sexual harassment of them. One of the girls lures him to the lake, and the others trip him with a rope so that he falls into a pile of dog excrement, after which the humiliated Mr. Maxwell retreats into his room. Pa brings news that Weaver's mother's house has burned down. The trappers who beat up Weaver got out of jail and set the fire, and also broke Mrs. Smith's arm and stole Weaver's college money. Emmie Hubbard invites Mrs. Smith to stay with her so she can nurture her friend back to health. Weaver declares his intention to forgo college so he can help his mother rebuild her life. Mattie mourns the death of the lawyer Weaver could have become, and begins to see the death of potential as a literal kind of death, such as what Grace Brown has suffered. Reading Grace Brown's last letter, Mattie realizes she cannot erase Grace Brown's voice from history. Her responsibility to the truth and to justice exceed her responsibility to Grace Brown and the promise to burn the letters.
Emmie Hubbard is a changed woman now that she has found a companion in Mrs. Smith. The arrangement is good for both women and hints at the possibility of a new kind of happy ending that is not a lie or contrivance. Other happy endings result from the two women helping each other. Tommy Hubbard can now help Mattie's Pa with the farm and Weaver can go to Columbia University assured that his mother will be taken care of. Mattie has earned enough money working for both Miss Wilcox and the hotel to cover her travel expenses to New York and help others secure their futures. Before she departs for New York, Mattie leaves Grace Brown's letters on Mr. Morrison's desk, along with three letters of her own: one with money for Pa to pay for the new mule, one to Weaver's mother with money for Emmie Hubbard's back taxes, and one to Royal Loomis with the engagement ring inside. She bids farewell to the corpse of Grace Brown and gives Weaver the money he needs to get to New York, encouraging him to leave immediately while their mutual resolve is strong. She boards the train for her future in New York City.
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