One interesting thing about Jennifer Donnelly’s A NORTHERN LIGHT is that I think I love the book for different reasons than she does.
In an interview I read, Donnelly talks about how the whole book was inspired by Theodore Dreiser’s AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, which apparently played a central role in Donnelly’s own life. Her book is framed around this classic story, set in 1906: a young woman and young man go out boating, and she drowns. Can you guess what happened and why?
I’m not even directly familiar with Dreiser’s book, but I knew from page one what had happened; that’s what a childhood spent watching Lifetime Original Movies will do to you. This part of the story didn’t grab me at all, because the “mystery” was so easily solved, and the dead woman, Grace, didn’t develop enough to interest me. (Even though the book is built around this subplot, it’s actually rather peripheral to the main characters’ emotional journey, which is really just as well.)
However. The original story that Donnelly created around this now-cliched tale is fascinating and, for me, was almost absurdly moving. The main characters are Mattie, a white girl, and Weaver, a black boy, best friends and poor teenagers whose one hope is to escape their confining town in the Adirondacks and make their way to college. They both wind up working at the ritzy Glenmore Hotel (where they intersect with Grace’s murder) as a way to earn their keep (and, in Mattie’s case, get a measure of independence from her family), but subsequent events destroy each of their seemingly best strategies for finding their freedom.
The book’s central tension is in showing all the ways the deck is stacked against these characters, while nevertheless showing how deeply their own choices matter. Weaver’s one act of resistance has tremendously negative consequences, leaving the question of whether he should have protected himself by not standing up for himself — and what emotional price he would have paid for that choice. The fact that neither option was remotely acceptable is not belabored by Donnelly; it’s simply obvious from the character she’s created, and it’s a deeply painful and unfair fact. Meanwhile, Donnelly manages, with great skill, to end the book hopefully without seeming for a moment like she’s settled for an easy answer for her characters.
Indeed, A NORTHERN LIGHT ends with more questions about Mattie’s and Weaver’s future than it does with any certainty. I found this absolutely maddening as a reader, because I cared about these characters so deeply — for days after I read it last summer, I could not get them out of my head — but she couldn’t have done it any other way. A NORTHERN LIGHT is a very original and powerful story, no matter what cliched origins have left their scars in the setup.