Study Guide

A Northern Light Introduction

By Jennifer Donnelly

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A Northern Light Introduction

Raise your hand if you like a good true crime story.

Now raise your hand if you like romance.

Let's see some hands from folks who have a soft spot for rebellious teens.

And now all you history nerds throw your hands up, too.

Okay, Shmoopsters, now that you're all raising your hands (how are your arms holding up?), we've got some good news for you: A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly, covers every single one of these bases. Yup—every single one. How's that for a crowd-pleaser? It's like, the ultimate book club book.

Here's the short of it (we'll leave the long for later): In 1906, Chester Gillette murdered Grace Brown. Like, for real. And in A Northern Light, our fictionalized main girl, Mattie, works at the hotel these two contemptuous lovers stay at when the crime unfolds—and the night before she dies, Grace gives Mattie a stack of letters, asking her to burn them. Dun dun dun…

It isn't all dead bodies and murder weapons, though, and much of the story centers around Mattie and her struggle to break free from the expectations put on her by family, society, and herself. She's just a sixteen-year-old girl, living in a man's world, desperately trying to build a happy life. So even if you've never been to 1906 (which, you know, we're assuming is most of you), if you've ever been a teenager, good luck not relating to Mattie. The specifics may have changed over the years, but this is about as relatable a coming-of-age tale as they come.

Speaking of 1906, though, Donnelly really did her homework when it came to researching A Northern Light—there's a reading list at the end of the novel if you're curious—and the awards this book's collected since its release in 2003 are proof enough that her work paid off. The novel won the Carnegie Medal (2004), the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (2003), and was a runner-up for the Michael L. Printz Award (2003). Plus, it's on a ton of "Best Book" lists for 2003: Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal, to name a few.

Now quit raising your hands, Shmoopsters, and start reading… and if Chester Gillette asks you to join him for a boat ride, we suggest you kindly turn down his offer.

What is A Northern Light About and Why Should I Care?

When we first read A Northern Light, we kind of wonder how Mattie would fare in the modern world. She seems to have a lot of practice coping with relatively modern issues (like parental disagreements, home responsibilities, young love). But Donnelly's pretty careful not to let modern problems affect the historical voice of Mattie, who remains staunchly located in 1906.

Even more compelling than Mattie's personal problems, then, is how these struggles arise from and connect to the social issues that affected people's lives at the turn of the 20th century. Through Mattie's narration and description, we see how the role of industry, the struggle for educational and social equality for African Americans and women, shifting gender roles, and the ways in which opportunities to move up or down the social ladder in 1906 affect individual characters' lives. Reading this book, in other words, immerses you in a different era.

And here's the thing about different eras: One of the only ways you can experience them is by reading. It's not like there's a plane ticket you can buy, or a time machine you can hop into and—poof—you're in another time. Nope, reading is pretty much your best bet. And if 1906 piques your interest even the tiniest bit, A Northern Light is your ticket to spending some seriously accurate time there. Donnelly just does not mess around with the details.

A Northern Light is a book that kind of hangs out in the back of our minds after we finish it. Sure we wonder about Mattie's future and what happens to the characters, but we also may find ourselves looking up what life was really like for women at the turn of the century, or doing some research about the true story of Grace Brown and Chester Gillette. And this is when we realize that Donnelly has captured our interest more than we thought was possible; the book might be over, but 1906 stays with us.

A Northern Light Resources


The Real Deal (The Short Version)
Check out a quick version of the true story of Chester Gillette and Grace Brown here.

The Real Deal (The Long Version)
Craig Brandon has developed one of the most complete websites out there about the Gillette/Brown case; check it out for photos, character descriptions, and the last letter Grace Brown ever wrote.

Starting to Write
Jennifer Donnelly is pretty clear about what aspiring writers like Mattie can do to become better writers.

Not Exactly California Dreamin'
Check out what life was like for Mattie and her community as they struggled to farm in upstate New York.


An Oldie but a Goodie
Though there's no movie production of A Northern Light, there's a 1951 adaption of the Grace Brown and Chester Gillette tragedy. With Montgomery Ward and Elizabeth Taylor, no less.

Newer and Nonfiction
If you're not looking for a blast from the past, check out this documentary about the murder.

Ghost Stories
Apparently Unsolved Mysteries doesn't just cover, well, unsolved mysteries. They also do ghost stories, and apparently Grace Brown lingers at the lake.


In Her Own Words
Jennifer Donnelly explains difficulties and successes in her writing here.


And Now for Something Completely Different…
… from any movie previews you've seen in theaters. Check out this movie preview for the 1951 film A Place in the Sun, which is based on the story of Grace Brown and Chester Gillette.


Long Car Ride Ahead?
Listen to the audiobook of A Northern Light instead. It may take almost nine hours, but the story is worth it.


How Did You Picture It?
Check this page for some photographs and lithographs directly related to the Grace Brown/Chester Gillette story.

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