Study Guide

A Northern Light Setting

By Jennifer Donnelly

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Eagle Bay

It may seem like a quiet little rural community, but Eagle Bay has more drama than reality television. There's a ton of tension in all the settings: the Gokey family farm, the rural community at large, the Glenmore Hotel—you name it, there's tension. There are also national tensions thrown in the mix, like racism, sexism, and classism, so if ever there's a dull moment between characters, one of these big old stinking social factors gets things riled right back up.

The Importance of When

Much of novel is flashbacks to spring and early summer of 1906, as Mattie remembers these events while processing Grace Brown's death during the day and night of July 12, 1906 (which functions as the present in the novel). So even though the novel takes place in the early 1900s, Donnelly's choice to frame it as flashbacks in one less-than-twenty-four-hour period for Mattie creates an immediacy that might not otherwise exist. In fact, Mattie makes a decision that changes the course of her entire life in less than a day—and we think that's pretty significant.

There's also national social context to consider whenever you're hanging out 1906. African Americans are gaining a few freedoms, but not nearly enough, so even though there are now African American banks and colleges, lynchings are still far too common, and Plessy v. Ferguson has paved the way for separate but equal facilities. It's important to keep this in mind as we follow Weaver Smith's story line and the racism he encounters in the novel.

And then there's the role of women. Although we're in the middle of the women's rights movement in the United States, women have yet to earn the right to vote (that happens in 1920). This means there are lots of social tensions about what it means to be a woman and the changing roles of women, both in and outside of the home, which we see in Aunt Josie's actions, Minnie's decision to marry and have a family, Mattie's major internal conflict, and Miss Wilcox's secret life as Emily Baxter, revolutionary and socially unacceptable poet.

Home Sweet Home on the Gokey Farm

Mattie loves her family farm. No, she hates it. Wait—it's the most beautiful place on Earth. No, it's the most disgusting. In actuality, Mattie can't really make up her mind about what she thinks about life on the Gokey farm. On one hand, she's got the promise she made to her mother pulling her to stay, but on the other, she doesn't really like what she sees in her future on the farm. She tells us:

I stared at my hands—red, cracked, old woman's hands—and saw what was in store for me: a whole summer of drudgery and no money for it. Cooking, cleaning, washing, sewing, feeding chickens, slopping pigs, milking cows, churning cream, salting butter, making soap, plowing, planting, hoeing, weeding, harvesting, haying, threshing, canning—doing everything that fell on the eldest in a family of four girls, a dead mother, and a pissant brother who took off to drive boats on the Erie Canal and refused to come back and work the farm like he ought to. (2.fractious.115)

It's a hard life, farming is, and Donnelly conducted plenty of research to strip the veneer from the pastoral country life. The farm is where Mattie knows her family, but she also feels completely trapped there. So while it may feel like the Gokeys live in a wide open space, the reality is that Mattie thinks the farm is far more limiting than freeing.

It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood…

Okay, so there's no Mr. Rogers or button-down sweaters, but Mattie's neighborhood provides more than enough drama and excitement for the story. And by neighborhood, we totally mean neighboring farms.

When it comes to Mattie's neighbors, there's lots of gossip, some illicit sexual behavior, and even a blossoming young love. It doesn't matter that Mattie lives in a rural environment—she still experiences potentially crushing poverty and sees its effects on Emmie Hubbard, and she still has to contend with vicious gossip from girls her own age.

On the flipside, when Mattie's family takes sick, it's not just her responsibility to take care of them; her neighbors step up and help her family get back on their feet. Weaver's mamma and Mrs. Loomis and Royal all pitch in to help Mattie and her Pa. So there's a lot to be said for a small town community—they (sometimes) really take care of one another.

Welcome to the Hotel Glenmore

The Glenmore really is a lovely place, and it serves as a contrast to the life Mattie leads on the farm. More than that, though, the setting of the Hotel Glenmore serves as a stepping stone for Mattie's transition from farm to New York City. The Glenmore is everything that the farm isn't: cultured, clean, and full of urbanites, and when she first arrives, Mattie is hesitant about the glamor of the hotel. She tells us:

Suddenly I wanted to tell my father to turn around. I didn't know the first thing about fine people, or how to behave around them. What if I dropped soup in someone's lap? Or spoke before I was spoken to? Or poured wine into the water glasses? (29.icosahedron.16)

Yup—someone's out of her comfort zone. But as she settles into the new setting, Mattie becomes accustomed to the rhythm of life in the hotel. She explains:

I could do that now—scold Henry and tease Bill and joke with Charlie, the bartender, and the guides—for I'd been at the Glenmore a whole week and had received my first wages, and I belonged now, too. Just as much as they did. (31.limicolous.4)

Working at the Glenmore helps Mattie realize that despite the difference between the work at the hotel and the Gokey farm, there are plenty of similarities. The hotel employees, like Mattie, value hard work and a job well-done; daily life at the hotel is just as frenetic as it is on the farm; and the people aren't that different from Mattie's neighbors.

By focusing on the commonalities instead of the differences between the settings and the people at each setting, Mattie's experience at the Glenmore prepares her to approach an even more challenging experience—going to college in New York City.

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