A Northern Light is the story of a girl who lives in rural New York during the turn of the 20th century, a girl who dreams of leaving her small community to study, write, and explore the world outside of the woods. But Mattie's mother is dead, her older brother left home, and her responsibilities to the rest of her family seem like a life sentence. Mattie is ready to make the best of it -- to give up her dreams in favor of marrying the handsome Royal Loomis and making a life as a farmer's wife. It many would be a good life...but not the life she had planned. Royal doesn't understand that part of Mattie that reads anything she can get her hands on, that writes any chance she gets, that plays vocabulary games and loves learning.
As Mattie wrestles with the conflict between her dreams, the realities of poor, rural life, and societal expectations, she takes a summer job at a swanky hotel up on the lake to earn money for her family and in expectation of marrying Royal. But during the murder of a young girl shakes up everyone at the hotel, perhaps Mattie most of all.I've read one other book by Jennifer Donnelly (Revolution) and I absolutely love how grounded her books are in their time period. Donnelly manages to paint a very rich picture of whatever place and period her characters are in, from the dirty and messy realities of life to the poignancy and beauty found in every day. Her characters are layered and very real. Their hopes and dreams are timeless, but the limitations they face put the story firmly in its unique time period -- from Mattie's best friend Weaver's struggles as a young black man in 1907 to the amount of effort it takes for a poor white woman to dream bigger than her back yard.
I'm not going to lie, there is a lot of sadness and hardship in A Northern Light. But there is also a thread of hope that runs through the story, mirroring the sadness and joy of real life.
Bottom line: if you like grounded, realistic historical fiction you can't go wrong here. And if you're typically not a historical fiction fan, but like books with rich characters, and a story of struggle and hope, give it a try.