Top notch YA literature, just as fast to read as the best action-packed stories, but with richly layered subplots and themes and skillful, graceful wrTop notch YA literature, just as fast to read as the best action-packed stories, but with richly layered subplots and themes and skillful, graceful writing.
I am very, very impressed. This is a book I could easily re-read a dozen times and still find new wonderful things inside of it.
Set in 1906 in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, the story is billed on the back cover as a murder mystery: 17 year old Mattie works at the resort hotel where a girl just a year older than herself is found dead, with her lover missing.
But it's so much more than a murder mystery. The main plot is Mattie's scholarship to Barnard college in NYC, but since her mother died of cancer the year before and her older brother ran away, Mattie's the only one to help her father take care of her four younger sisters. Plus she made a promise that she can't bear to break...
What I loved about Mattie is that she's smart enough to realize the pros and cons of both paths, and even when she's caught up in Royal's arms she knows that love has blinders.
Then you've got the character subplots. Now I'm not going to give away how any of the plots turn out, but I should warn anyone reading this that I love all the characters so much I'm going to talk about ALL of them.
There's Mattie's father, refusing to speak his native Canadian French, and who is still lost in grief over the loss of his wife.
Royal Loomis, the young farmer with a vision, is sparking Mattie (in other words, courting, but don't you love that term sparking?)
Mattie's best friend Minnie has just had twin babies.
Her other best friend, Weaver, the only black kid in the county, also wins a scholarship, but he might just as easily end up in jail as a result of his bitter temper.
Crazy Emmie who paints beautiful pictures, can't afford to pay her taxes, and all her kids have lice.
Miss Emily Wilcox who encourages Mattie's writing and helps her get her scholarship but has her own dark secret she's trying to hide.
The letters entrusted to Mattie by Grace, the dead girl, which contain the answer to why she died.
And last but not least, Mattie's mother's old dictionary.
Mattie loves to write and she loves to learn new words, so everyday she or one of her sisters pick a new word out the dictionary and learn its different meanings and synonyms. The fun part of this is how Mattie weaves her word-of-the-day into each of the situations she encounters. Weaver is also a word-lover and they often have word-duels while they are walking to school or later working together in the kitchen of the resort (resorts were called "camps" back then, though they were epitome of luxury).
Even the minor characters are complex in this story: giving you reasons both to love and shiver at the things they do. Uncle Fifty with his gifts and his French accent and his wild stories of riding log jams; Aunt Josie who sounds like she crawled out of an Austen novel; Royal's xerophilous mother and philandering father; Mrs Weaver and her plan to earn money; Mr Eckler and his pickle boat; the man at Table Six and his unfortunate encounter with the leavings of Hamlet the Great Dane.
The book has all these humourous vignettes, but each one is multi-dimensioned - they aren't just humorous, they are also sad or bitter or twisted in some way that makes you smile and wince at the same time.
A Northern Light was also written with a very different, perhaps experimental structure. I like it, but I could see it being an issue for some, because it jumps between different time periods. Though it's all written in Mattie's first person present tense, it starts when Grace's body is discovered in the lake by the resort, and then jumps back to several months prior. Almost every chapter alternates between the present and past, and your only clue that you are back in the past again is that the past chapters all have Mattie's word-of-the-day as the chapter title, where the present chapters have no title at all. Once I figured out the pattern, I really liked the jumps back and forth which I thought added tension and dimension to the story, just like alternating points of view do sometimes.
And now for my favorite quotes from A Northern Light.
Weaver says freedom is like Sloan's Liniment, always promising more than it delievers.
Once in a while the main library in Herkimer sends up a new book or two. It's nice to get your hands on a new book before everyone else does. While the pages are still clean and white and the spine hasn't been snapped. While it still smells like words and not Mrs. Higby's violet water or Weaver's mamma's fried chicken or my aunt Josie's liniment.
[When Royal picked me up] I realized I would be a topic of conversation amongst my friends for the rest of the day, if not the rest of the week. It was a strange feeling - worrisome and exciting all at once. Wexanxilicious?
More about Royal:
Maybe he appreciated things other than words - the dark beauty of the lake, for example or the awesome majesty of the forest. Maybe his quietness masked a great and boiling soul. It was a quaint notion he soon dispelled. "Skunk et all my chicks last night," he said. "Guts and feathers all over the yard."
I'd never heard him talk so much in all the years I'd known him. I guess I never had him on the right topic. Start him off on farming and he waxed downright poetical. For the first time, I saw what was in his heart. And I wondered if he might ever want to look deep enough to see what was in mine.
Mattie talking to her teacher, Miss Wilcox:
"People in books are good and noble and unselfish, and people aren't that way... and I feel, well... hornswoggled sometimes. By Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and Lousia May Alcott. Why do writers make things sugary when life isn't that way?" I asked too loudly. "Why don't they tell the truth? Why don't they tell how a pigpen looks after the sow's eaten her children? Or how it is for a girl when her baby won't come out? Or that cancer has a smell to it? All those books, Miss Wilcox," I said, pointing to a pile of them, "and I bet not one of them will tell you what cancer smells like. I can though. It stinks. Like meat gone bad and dirty clothes and bog water all mixed together. Why doesn't anyone tell you that?"
...I realized then that Miss Wilcox had stopped smiling. Her eyes were fixed on me, and I was certain she'd decided I was morbid and dispiriting like Miss Parrish said and that I should leave then and there.
"I'm sorry, Miss Wilcox," I said, looking at the floor. "I don't mean to be coarse. I just... I don't know why I should care what happens to people in a drawing room in London or Paris or anywhere else when no one in those places cares what happens to people in Eagle Bay."
Miss Wilcox's eyes were still fixed on me, only now they were shiny. Like they were the day I got my letter from Barnard. "Make them care, Mattie," she said softly. "And don't you ever be sorry."
...she took two books..."Therese Raquin", she said solemnly, "and Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Best not tell anyone you have them." Then she took her writing paper out of its box, put the books in the box, covered them with a few sheets of paper, and handed the box to me.
I smiled, thinking that my teacher sure was dramatic. "Cripes, Miss Wilcox, they're not guns," I said.
"No, they're not, Mattie, they're books. And hundred times more dangerous."
This book would have been 5 stars even without the magical elements, because it's such a classic plot. But don't let the word "classic" lead you to asThis book would have been 5 stars even without the magical elements, because it's such a classic plot. But don't let the word "classic" lead you to assume it's without surprises.
One thing I particularly liked about it is that Ani's discovery of her magic doesn't impact how the ending turns out. In other words, the magic isn't what "saves" her, except in a very small way.
I can hardly say anything about this book without giving crucial elements away, so when I'm stuck in this quandry I just rave about the characters.
Ani - the princess who doesn't fit her role. She has an amazing character arc. And, she's not just a story-teller, she was a story-listener first.
the Queen, her mother - has the gift of people-speaking: she can influence people and manipulate them. The differences between her and her sister, Ani's aunt, are dramatic and really give the first part of the story its punch.
Selia - Ani's lady in waiting. The author drops a few hints about her, but they are just conflicting enough to keep you guessing (for a while, at any rate). It's too bad the blurb here on Goodreads gives away such a spoiler about Selia. Fortunately I read the book before reading the spoiler.
Falada - Ani's horse, whom she is able to communicate with. Falada is part of the most startling and (at least to me), controversial part of the story.
Jok - Ani's goose. I dearly hope he's in the sequels because there wasn't enough of him in this book.
Conrad - I decided to list him instead of Geric, because Geric is almost too awesome to be real. Conrad, the goose boy, is much more realistic. I love how Ani wins him over at the end.
Gisla - she doesn't play a large role, but she defines her role so uniquely I longed for more of her and was so happy that she showed up again near the end of the story...more