Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly

Going back a ways for a classic....

It's 1906 in the Adirondacks and Mattie Gokey is the 16 year-old daughter of a poor widower farmer, with dreams of going to college. Although she is bright and intelligent and her progressive teacher believes she has the talent to go to school, there are a lot of barriers in her way: a father who doesn't believe that higher education is appropriate, a family that needs her now that her mother is dead and her older brother has run away from home, a beau who expects her to become his adoring wife, and the grinding poverty of the North Woods itself.

Ostensibly told through the lens of the story of a murder of Grace Brown, her death is only a device to introduce the story of Mattie. Donnelly did her homework well (a bibliography at the end will give you her sources) and the book is full of rich detail (it's a great illustration of how to write good histiorical fiction). At the same time, the details are also just decorative and secondary to the author's purpose: which is to address the subject of identity at a time (and place) where finding your identity if you were a woman was particularly challenging.

I fear that this wonderfully-nuanced book has been taken over by the formal pedagogues and turned into an exercise to occupy the shelves of school lockers. The reprint edition I read comes complete with an author interview and a list of discussion questions -- the type that some lazy High School teacher is probably assigning their students to answer in perfect five paragraph theme essays. The story, with its healthy dose of political correctness probably brings that treatment on itself, but it never ceases to sadden me to have a book intended for enjoyment become a tool for formal learning.

Discussing whether I like or dislike a classic seems mostly pointless. If you haven't been forced to read this book for a class, then you'll probably like it (if you have been assigned the book, then hopefully you'll like it anyway!). There's plenty to like: memorable characters, the aforementioned intricate historical details, soaring hopes, and terrible set-backs. The unfortunate appearance of symbolism, irony, and Deep Meaningful Scenes is unfortunate, but intended mostly to keep frustrated English Composition majors (also called English Teachers) happy. Personally, I'm not a big fan of the interrupted narrative (too much jumping forward and backward in time) that Donnelly uses throughout the story, but it's very chic. It is, in the end, one of those awarded books that really deserved its awards.


Sara R said...

Can a book written in 2003 be a classic?

Paul said...

That's a fair question. I think that there are plenty of people who would consider this to be something of a "classic in the making." In other words, a book which is likely to become a classic because it doesn't date itself.

I was using the term a bit facetiously in this case, but I would feel pretty comfortable applying a word like "classic" to Laurie Halse Anderson's "Speak" or Kate Di Camillo's "Because of Winn Dixie" and neither of those are particularly old.

What are your thoughts?