Young Adult Lit/Crit

April 30, 2008

A Northern Light

Filed under: A NORTHERN LIGHT — sostrom @ 12:09 pm

I just finished A Northern Light, and it is among my favorites this semester.  There has been blog discussion of reading this novel through a feminist lens, which seems like a natural choice. 

There are several scenes that really struck me as particularly illuminating of the struggle women had (and still have) in trying to balance their roles as daughter/sister/wife/mother with their individual selves.  The scene in which Mattie visits Minnie and her two newborn twins first addresses this issue.  Mattie is shocked to find the house, Minnie and the babies are in utter disarray.  After she gets the house in order, Mattie has the epiphany that “Emily Dickinson was a damned sneaky genius” (273).  She realizes that with a husband and children, the female authors she so admires would never have written a word.  She also notes that male authors didn’t have to choose between loneliness and their passion for writing.  Yet, at the conclusion of this scene, Mattie “nestles against” Royal and finds that “suddenly nothing else seemed to matter” (275). 

What did you think of this scene?  The clear division Mattie feels about her passion for writing and her feelings for Royal?  Do you think that her feelings for Royal are genuine affection, or are they more a combination of the influence of society’s pervasive belief that women should marry and the community’s perception of Royal as a good catch?  Finally, isn’t it amazing that a girl so bright and capable still struggles with self-esteem issues when it comes to her relationship with a man? 

Overall, our discussion of A Northern Light has been very female-centered.  How do you think boys will respond this novel?  I’d love to hear what the men in our class think about this book.

And finally, can someone remind me why this book was challenged?




  1. Sarah,

    This is a great post, as usual. You’re smart.

    I am completely in agreement about the Dickenson part of the novel, as I was also very affected by this scene. Minnie’s hungry babies, suckling her poor body dry- that was almost too much for me. The fact that Dickenson was brought up was nice, I guess, but I also kind of hated that.

    Dickenson’s reclusiveness (though empowering through Matty’s read) was also akin to social death in my opinion. Emily and I have the same birthday, and I own a huge collection of her work. I can’t help but think that her lack of a “role” in the social world was a great tragedy. A woman as bright as her (no pun intended, as we all know she died of Bright’s disease) would have made a wonderful addition to her community. Alas, perhaps we are her community. I waffle.

    Your question about Royal and Mattie’s insecurity is right on point. I would like to hear what other people think of that. It is very contemporary, as far as I’m concerned. Even “Sex and the City” ended with marriage, the exact opposite of what we would have expected from a show with such fabulous singularity and independent thought.

    Waffling on Emily,

    Comment by Joyce — April 30, 2008 @ 3:39 pm

  2. S, your “isn’t this amazing…” how I wish. I watch many of my undergrad women suffer these kinds of relationships–so needy to be with a man–every semester.

    Royal is hot–she’s attracted–who wouldn’t be–but conflicted for reasons you state–and who’s that other girl he’s seeing!! And the cookbook! Dear god!!

    I have found male readers really like this book. Not teenage males–can’t speak to that–but undergrads and grads at SUNY.

    We’ll have to see what our men think?

    I’ve asked Raph to rant again but he’s assured me he likes this book!!

    Joyce, I agree completely with what you say here….. of course SEX AND THE CITY ended with marriage–all good comedy does, heh? At least the bard thought so. Speak reverently. This week was his b’day! KES

    Comment by sunyprof — April 30, 2008 @ 5:47 pm

  3. Very good point, Sarah. While reading novels that take place before the rise of feminism and gender equality (I use that term loosely), I constantly ask myself how genuine and true a young woman’s feelings for a man are. I am not discrediting Mattie’s feelings for Royal or implying that every relationship before 1900 was socially constructed; but male and social influence played a larger role than the desires and feelings of women during the times of Mattie and Royal.

    Also, how interesting and appealing A NORTHERN LIGHT is for students of Cortland and surrounding counties, since it takes place locally. Any/every connection counts!


    Comment by jexter1 — April 30, 2008 @ 6:47 pm

  4. A NORTHERN LIGHT is one of my favorite reads from this semester. I loved Mattie and cheered for her to choose college. I thought Weaver was an important character, not just to Mattie, as he challenged her and the idea that she had to stay and take care of her family, and he was the hot head to Mattie’s level headedness, but also as the only African American in a small town and the trouble that brought him.
    I thought it was interesting that Mattie didn’t seem to fully understand her Pa’s dedication to his family until the crazy (drunk) Uncle came to visit. Mattie notes that her father is always grim and her Uncle Fifty is always smiling. That, and when she recalls her mother telling her about Pa’s scars from his step-father, is when she sees how hard his life was before, harder than hers now, and that he gave up what he loved – river driving – for his family.
    I enjoyed the historical aspect as much as the local connection. I love historical crime stuff. I have recordings from TV shows about murders from my college town in the 1900s and 1980s as well as an episode about my parents’ high school classmate from the 70s. I had heard about Chester Gilette but not much about Grace Brown before this book.
    I also wonder why this book was banned. When I bought it at the beginning of the semester and shared the back cover with some of my family, they and I thought (incorrectly) that Grace had been a prostitute that Chester had a night with. After reading it I of course learned that to not be true. So what is so bad that is had to be banned

    Totally unrelated here, but… Joyce- you and I and Emily Dickinson share a birthday! How cool!

    Comment by ebrazee — April 30, 2008 @ 11:17 pm

  5. I also found Weaver an important character,Erica. He struggles with racism alongside Mattie’s struggle with the role of women. The different manners in which they react to their situations represented different ways in which people deal with oppression. I was so glad each time he stood up for himself, even as all of the other characters were telling him to calm down and stop. I hope that he used Mattie’s money to go to school and become the lawyer he is meant to be!

    As everyone else has been mentioning, I can’t understand why this book would be banned either. I have had individual students read it, and I am completely comfortable having a copy in my room and recommending it to my middle school kids. I can’t understand how banning it in high school could be possible!

    Comment by katefrazer — May 1, 2008 @ 11:07 am

  6. As I browsed through the blog from last year’s YA Lit class, I found this post RE: A NORTHERN LIGHT being challenged –
    In short, it was challenged because of “language […] too many social issues […] and negative
    messages against motherhood.”


    Comment by sostrom — May 1, 2008 @ 11:39 am

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