The Northern Lights

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

THE NORTHERN LIGHTS opens by giving away its “plot"--the death by drowning of the fourteen-year-old narrator Noah Krainik’s friend, Pelly Bay, while riding his unicycle on a frozen lake in the tiny town of Quill in the Northwest Territories. Noah hears of the death after having returned by mail plane to his even more isolated home, after spending the summer and fall with Pelly and Pelly’s Aunt Hettie, a Cree Indian, and Uncle Sam.

Noah then describes his memories of Pelly and his return to Quill the next summer to witness Hettie and Sam’s grief and to work out his own. Hettie tells Noah that “her hands felt crowded,” with “no room, to hold things": She can no longer lift the kettle, her favorite possession. The members of Noah’s own family--his reclusive father, Anthony; his mother, Mina, obsessed with the story of the Ark; and his younger cousin Charlotte, who includes crow patterns in everything she knits--are equally finely drawn.

The strength and fragility of the north, where Hettie’s hands can get amnesia and Mina glimpse the Ark, are carried over to Toronto, where Noah meets a Cree who hunts and fishes for carp and chipmunks by night and checks the change traps of vending machines and pay phones by day.

The temptation is to read this gem of a book quickly, to see what new facets will be revealed and how they will reflect Noah’s growing awareness of his own and others’ deepest feelings. Howard Norman’s clear, evocative prose, however, causes even the most impatient reader to linger over a story that is all the more telling because it is presented without drama. Never does Norman exploit his characters; never does a voice ring untrue. Nor does THE NORTHERN LIGHTS leave one hanging or otherwise disappoint; on the contrary, it uplifts and more than satisfies.