Monday, 23 November 2009

A Gathering Light

I read about A Gathering Light, by Jennifer Donnelly, on Susan's blog... here at Bloggin' 'Bout Books, several weeks ago. I liked the sound of it so much I reserved it from the library and am so pleased I did. By the way, the American and original title of this book is A Northern Light. I can't think why they changed it for UK readers, perhaps it was thought that we might not understand concept of 'northern'...



It's 1906 and seventeen year old, Mattie Govey, lives on a small farm in the northern woods, in New York State. Mattie's abiding passion is books and she is desperate to go to college and, eventually, become a writer. How unlikely a dream this is quickly becomes evident as we hear about her life. She lives with her widowed father and three sisters, her elder brother, Lawton, having recently run away after a row with his father. They are a poor family and life is hard. Day to day living for Mattie is a constant round of chores, cooking and looking after the family; inbetween that she manages to fit in her school life which she loves more than anything. Words are her passion and she has a game in which she chooses a 'word of the day' and her, and her friend, Weaver, the only black teenager for miles around who also wants to go to college to be a lawyer, think of as many meanings for the word as they can, throughout the day.

The narrative, told in the first person, skips around over the space of some months, so we first meet Mattie in the present when she's working for a local hotel, waiting tables and skivvying in the kitchen. A body has been found in the lake and it's one of the hotel guests, a young woman, Grace Brown. She had been staying there with a young man, her fiance, Carl Grahm. But Mattie knows that that's not his real name because Grace had given Mattie some letters and asked her to burn them. Mattie had tried but not managed to do it and when the body turns up she eventually reads the letters instead. What is revealed shocks her into considering what her life has been and will become. Mattie is presently engaged to Royal Loomis, a blonde haired, good looking boy whose people own a neighbouring farm. Why is he so interested in a plain, bookish girl like Mattie? Especially as he has no interest in books himself and is scathing of her passion for them. Mattie looks back over events of previous months and draws parallels between her life and Grace's. Her head tells her she will never make it to college and even if it were possible she would still have to make the choice that most female writers of the previous century, and this, have been faced with - that of having a husband and children or having a career in writing. It seems to her that it's not possible for a woman to have both.

Well, this rather special book won the Carnegie medal for 2004 and I'm not even remotely surprised. You could describe this as a feminist book and that would be correct: it most certainly is. You're not beaten over the head with it precisely but woven into the story are straightforward facts about the lives of women at the beginning of the 20th. century. Their limited choices, sexual lives (not explicit but very matter of fact), continual child bearing, daily drudgery and so on. Even if you were well off and intelligent things were not that much better, men still had the upper hand and most women had, basically, to do what they were told or what was expected of them by society. It sounds depressing and, for us looking back, it is. But the book is not depressing as a whole, there is plenty of humour and Mattie herself is an absolute joy. Her personality jumps off the page at you and you can't help but grieve for her situation and lack of prospects while at the same time loving her zest for life.

There were elements of several of my favourite books in this story. Partly it was a sort of a backwoods version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn but also there were shades of The Little House in the Big Woods and Anne of Greengables, albeit rather adult ones. It depends on the teenager of course, but I don't think I would recommend this book for anyone under the age of fifteen or sixteen as some of the themes are quite adult in nature.

All in all, a wonderful read... perfect for anyone doing the feminist challenge that I've seen on a couple of blogs lately. Certainly it'll feature in my top ten list of best reads this year and might even be my book of the year. Yes - it was that good.

11 comments:

Nymeth said...

Oh wow - I mooched this a while ago for my personal Carnegie Project, but I knew next to nothing about it other than that it'd won. Feminist! Can't wait to read it now :D

kiirstin said...

Cath, if it's that good, I'm just going to have to put it on the list. Thanks! Sounds wonderful.

Cath said...

Nymeth: some fantastic books have won the Carnegie - Terry Pratchett's 'Maurice' I think? I can see why you're doing a personal Carnegie project as you'll have some good reads ahead of you. Yes, the book is very thought provoking in a feminist way. I think you would love it.

kiirstin: I hope you get around to it at some stage and love it as much as I did.

Danielle said...

I read this several years ago and really enjoyed it as well. I hate it when publishers change titles--do they think readers aren't savvy enough to understand what the title references? If I recall correctly this was based in part on a actual event--the same one Theodore Dreiser wrote about in An American Tragedy (another book I want to read).

Cath said...

Danielle: I really dislike title changes too. I think because I tend to detect an insult to my intelligence and I really can't see the point to this change. The American title makes much more sense.

Yes, I gather that the murder was a real one that Donnelly incorprated into her story. Clever.

Tara said...

Hmmm. Perhaps I should take another look at this one. It's sounded interesting to me, but I've read one of the author's adult books and thought it was quite silly and then avoided this one. Think I'll see if our library has it. Thanks!

Cath said...

Tara: I'll be honest, I didn't know she wrote for adults, although this one is very close to adult, imo. Not silly though, not in my estimation anyway. Mine was a library book and that would be the way to go I think.

Nicola said...

Your review has made me want to re-read this. I read it a few years ago and loved it but it's no longer fresh in my mind. I do like coming-of-age stories.

Cath said...

Nicola: I think I'm going to want to reread this one myself in a few years time. A very powerful book.

Paperback Reader said...

I really enjoyed this when I read it at a friend's suggestion a couple of years ago. I underestimated how good it would be.

Perhaps they thought that we would confuse it with the Northern Lights? Philip Pullman's Northern Lights was changed to The Golden Compass in the States so there's obviously some issue on either side of the pond!

Another great Carnegie winner that I read a loved this year is Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd. I cannot recommend it highly enough although I attempted to in my review.

Cath said...

Paperback Reader: I think I underestimated how good this book would be too. It took me completely by surprise.

You could be right - I hadn't considered the similarity between the 'Northern Lights' book title and A Northern Light. Good point.

I checked my local library catalogue and it has a copy of Bog Child. A totally new title to me so thanks for the rec. I've put it on my 'pick up at the library' list.