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But We Could Burn Like The Northern Lights

A review of the historical novel A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly, which centers on a girl's conflict between ambition and duty.

But We Could Burn Like The Northern Lights

BOOK REPORT for A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

Cover Story: Classic
BFF Charm: Yep
Swoonworthy Scale: 3
Talky Talky: Keepin' It Real
Bonus Factors: Adirondacks, True Crime, Vocab
Relationship Status: Soul Sister

Cover Story: Classic

I really dig this cover and think it's totally classy. The forest, lake and boat are not only very pretty, but completely relevant to the story. The cover is designed to look like it was printed on the back of an old-timey letter. If you look closely, you can see faded handwriting (you can also see the fake crinkling of the letter on the sides.) The girl I could do without, but I appreciate that they used an older photograph (or, at least one meant to look older). Overall, just a very thoughtful cover. It's a bummer that the paperback reprint looks like a modern (read: poor man's) version of the original.

The Deal:

Life isn't easy for a poor girl growing up in the North Woods at the turn of the twentieth century. But life gets even harder for 16 year old Mattie after her mother dies and her brother runs off. Her emotionally absent father expects her to fill their roles and Mattie made a promise to her dying mother that she would take care of her family. But Mattie has dreams of moving to New York City for college and becoming a writer. Conflicted between ambition and duty, Mattie's life takes an unexpected turn when she comes into the possession of a murdered girl's final letters.

BFF Charm: Yep

Mattie certainly has more responsibilities than I did as a 16 year old. She's trying to finish up high school and get her degree, but it isn't easy when she has to help her father with their farm and play matriarch to the family. It's hard seeing Mattie so conflicted between following her dreams to New York City and trying to make do with a life at home and keep her promise to her mother. While I clearly know which choice I want her to make, I understand what makes the decision so difficult for her and I really feel for her.

I did, however, get a little frustrated when Mattie took her sweet time figuring out some obvious (or, at least obvious to the readers) truths. But then, I was at bit naive at that age too.

Swoonworthy Scale: 3

Mattie's love interest is the handsome farmer boy next door, Royal. On the one hand, Royal is blonde and beautiful and basically a total hunk of man meat. On the other hand, he isn't the sharpest plow in the field and cannot understand why Mattie reads and writes. But I appreciate that Mattie's relationship with him is more about the physical than the cerebral. Because sometimes when you're 16, you don't care whether someone is a correct match for you, personality-wise. Sometimes you just care what your hormones are screaming. But the biggest problem with Mattie's hormones is that they're blowin' up in 1905. And banging the big, dumb hot guy isn't really an option. The only option is marrying the big, dumb hot guy.

Talky Talky: Keepin' It Real

This is one of those books where you can really tell the author did their research. All of the descriptions of the location, farm life, and logging really gave this story a rich backdrop. I also felt like this book tackled many hardships without becoming too despairing. I really liked the frank way Mattie described the world around her. One of the most memorable passages to me, is when Mattie is discussing books with her teacher:

"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 Louisa 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 a sow's eaten her children? Or how it is it for a girl when a baby won't come out? Or that cancer has a smell to it? All of those books, Miss Wilcox," I said, pointing at 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?"

Bonus Factor: Adirondacks

How beautiful are the Adirondacks?! Well, I don't really know from first hand knowledge, but I've seen pictures. Summers in the woods on a lake? Perfection.

Bonus Factor: True Crime

The murder that takes place in this book is totally a real murder. It was super sensational at its time and its plot should be familiar to those of you who've read An American Tragedy or seen A Place In The Sun.

Bonus Factor: Vocab

Mattie's dictionary love and word-of-the-day and synonym games are going to appeal to the vocab geeks out there.

Casting Call:

Nina Dobrev as Mattie

Chord Overstreet as Royal

Relationship Status: Soul Sister

This book is going to really speak to anyone who has felt like a bit of an outsider or had a dream of wanting a life that seemed impossible. So, basically all of us? I would totally try and help this book follow it's dreams. If this book wants to move to New York City to become a writer, I'll be its roommate. If this book wants to marry a big, dumb hot guy, well, I guess I'll support that too. Because this is the kind of book that supports you too.

Megan Crane's photo About the Author: Megan is an unabashed fangirl who is often in a state of panic about her inability to watch, read and play all the things.