Young Adult Lit/Crit

April 30, 2008

Thoughts on A Northern Light

Filed under: A NORTHERN LIGHT — traverse02 @ 9:18 pm

Where to begin….

A Northern Light is a great novel. And as much as I would like to go off the deep end–for the sake of discussion, of course–and rant about how Donnelly vilifies the White Male American, I can’t help but reflect on (and to be honest, sit in awe of) the rebellious spirit coursing through these pages. I especially enjoyed reading Jerry’s post from the previous 619 class where he brought up the historical connotations of the setting and posited that this was very much a 21st century story (or, rather, a story for the 21st century).

I see Mattie as a 21st century woman. And given the name, along with the fact that she is often called Matt, I sometimes read her as a male character. Donnelly toys with this, and ultimately, Mattie’s gender becomes moot. Also, by placing her in this time period, Donnelly sets Mattie in opposition to many classic tragic heroines–and here I can’t help but think of Edna Pontellier in The Awakening–that have been common in literature since Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. Instead of drowning herself in the proverbial lake, or ocean, or what have you, she manages to overcome the status that has been imposed on her by her family and her community, and becomes truly free (until she enters Grad School or something). As Karen would say, we finally have a female protagonist that doesn’t kill herself.

Sarah and Joyce made some great comments about the scene where Mattie questions the role of motherhood and how it might hinder her development as an artist, and although I do agree with Mattie’s point of view on the matter, I must say, male writers were just as lonely. Two words: Kafka and Poe. Hell, genius is misunderstood whether you are male or female. Motherhood could be a major imposition on how much time is allowed for being creative, but it could also be an inspiration. Fatherhood, for the real men out there that have some character and stand by their families, is just as demanding, and there have been plenty of writers, male and female, who have been had time for family. I really think this was Mattie at her most cynical.

I look forward to discussing this book tomorrow. See y’all then.





  1. Great post Raph. I understand your issue with Donnelly “vilifying the White Male American”, but do you think this
    is an intentional political point she is trying to make, or rather just Donnelly trying to be true to her narrative?
    See you in class.


    Comment by scrollman — May 1, 2008 @ 11:09 am

  2. I think Donnelly’s vilification of the white male American is a striking political point that manages to comment on systems of oppression that were in place, and are still in place to this day. I also think it fits the narrative and Mattie’s point of view… However, I can’t help but feel bad for being a white male. We’ve been made out to be a bunch of jerks in some of the books we’ve been reading.


    Comment by traverse02 — May 1, 2008 @ 11:43 am

  3. Raph, this is similar to how I feel being a white, female teacher, as we talked about in your 663 presentation.

    Comment by sostrom — May 1, 2008 @ 11:54 am

  4. Raph,

    I agree that this is a great post. I like your idea of toying with Matt’s gender identity. You might take a gendered look at the kitchen as well, with the head cook being the boss (a female) and the undercook being incompetent (white male.) I’m kind of just throwing this together while I write, so excuse that this thought isn’t very well developed. Perhaps the kitchen is usually a “female” area, but I think the cook’s role reaches far outside of the actual kitchen, and that her characteristics are more akin to what we would consider to be “male?” I don’t know.


    Comment by Joyce — May 1, 2008 @ 10:24 pm

  5. Raph,
    I’m glad you brought up the fact that this is a 21st century novel. It seems that much historical fiction is guilty of this transgression though. What would be an effective way to use the anachronisms in the classroom? By introducing new historicism. I think it would be incredibly effective to ask students to consider the changes of social attitudes towards women and African Americans over time. I would ask the students to create a timeline of the events for these people from the time of the novel to present. Then, I would ask the student to choose a date and re-write a scene or passage from the story as a person from that date. For example, if a student chose the 1960s, the would have to consider the civil rights movement. They would attempt to re-write or create a passage based on civil rights. Maybe Weaver faces the same problem as many black students who are integrating into schools in the 1960s. A student might write a scene about Weaver going to Columbia and being discriminated against.

    I believe that this is one of the more difficult literary criticisms to understand. Obviously it is quite difficult to separate ourselves from the mentality of our time and society. In reading a Northern Light, it is easier to consider it as authentic instead of a reflection of our own time. This would be a challenging exercise for students but, I believe, a beneficial one.


    Comment by allison — May 4, 2008 @ 8:49 am

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