Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Northern Light - a review

A Northern Light
Jennifer Donnelly
400 pages

Someone told me that they normally give this book to YA-naysayers to shut them up. A Northern Light isn't a "Ha! Gotcha!" book. It's a middle finger book. It's two middle fingers and an "Up yours!" straight in a YA-naysayers face kind of book.*

A Northern Light isn't pretty. It's gritty. Set in 1906 around a real life scandalous murder, the story follows Mattie Gokey, a young girl living on a farm with a penchant for books and writing. Mattie is faced with a variety of choices (as anyone her age is): go to college or stay in her podunk town, become a writer or marry Royal Loomis, and so on, and so on.

There are hard choices here, there are abusive characters. If you think Sarah Dessen's books take you down a rabbit hole of neglect and abuse and alcoholism, read ANL. If you hate YA, go read ANL.

Jennifer Donnelly does a great job of writing dialect (you can tell she did her homework). Her descriptions of farm life and the grit and grime of it outdo anything seen on Dirty Jobs. She does justice to the, well, how does someone compliment dirty words that were used in 1906? Just know that they're there, and that they're not abused or misused. That she exercises tact with the world she's trying to bring back to life, one that should feel humbled at the accomplishment she's achieved here.

I was all set to give this book five stars. I gave it three. Why the change? The ending. ANL tries very hard to break the misconceptions someone would have about YA, but in the end... it's a YA novel. For all Jennifer Donnelly's writing about how most characters get happy endings, and real life doesn't have them, she pulls off the typical YA ending in a total YA way. Which is disappointing. If you're going to write this kind of book, you need to be prepared to make your characters suffer.

It's very wolf in sheep's clothing this book. Which is a good thing, because it shows that YA can be difficult and scary and violent and racist and sexist and isn't always typical. Donnelly followed a path, one that didn't take her through the YA fairy tale land, but she ended up there anyways.

If someone is going to write a book that is YA and is not YA, the formula has to be abandoned completely. You can't veer on and off the path at your leisure. You can't--hold on, I'm invoking The Rolling Stones--always get what you want.

*My typical thinking on most Young Adult period novels are that it's going to be Little House on the Prairie meets, well, Little House on the Prairie with Murder. At no point did I feel like I was reading a YA novel.

9 comments:

  1. I don't really mind when a character is anachronistic or out of place in her setting (a bright, bookish, but very poor farm daughter who wants to go to college), because I believe that individuals like that have existed in history. But like you, I felt the author's hand in wrapping her story up too neatly; it didn't feel "of the period," it just felt tidy and unrealistic. My grandmother was brilliant, and should have been a professor, but what she became instead was a brilliant mother with high standards, who raised smart kids (one of whom became a professor) because that's all that was available to her. I'm not saying that fiction shouldn't be better or more magical than the real world, or that the characters can't have unusual outcomes, but somehow the ending should still feel like it could have happened that way, we shouldn't sense that the author made it so. But man, oh man, I loved the writing in this book. It's just gorgeous, and invokes the setting and time so beautifully. (I have REVOLUTION waiting on my shelf.)

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    1. This is the best comment that has ever been left on my blog. You sum up what I was trying to say in so many paragraphs with just a few sentences. Thank you for this, Elizabeth.

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  2. The details really make Donnelly's writing, particularly in Revolution. I'd forgotten the ending -- been a long time since I read ANL. I tried to read Donnelly's adult fiction, but the dialect I appreciated in her YA books overpowered her other book and I had to quit after a few chapters because the phonetic Irish accent spelled out was too irritating. Dialect is a really fine line.

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    1. Yes, the details and the dialect are what make this book so great. I can see how she could get bogged down in dialect (I think some people didn't like Blood Red Road because of it) and the Irish speak is a bit hard to nail.

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  3. So will I like this one? Because it sounds great but it sounds like you're saying the ending doesn't match the rest of the book.

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    1. It's a great book about 90% of the way through. It's trying real hard--and succeeding--at being a YA novel that isn't a YA novel. Then it hits the ending and it turns into--gasp--a YA novel ending. Just... it ruined my experience.

      So maybe. There's cursing and the dreaded N word and all that stuff, but overall it's a good book.

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  4. I read this book and I totally agree with this statement: "If you're going to write this kind of book, you need to be prepared to make your characters suffer."

    There was SO MUCH POTENTIAL.

    I did love it tons and tons though, and the mystery was solid. Very unlike the other YA out there, as you say.

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    1. I am so glad that no one is ripping me a new one for hating the ending of this book. I thought it was going to be so different, and then all the problems are solved in ten pages or less.

      I did like it, though! And the mystery was amazing. I read the Wikipedia article about Grace Brown after finishing the book. Very neat stuff.

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