Study Guide

Pa (Michael) Gokey in A Northern Light

By Jennifer Donnelly

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Pa (Michael) Gokey

A widower of indeterminate age, Pa has one son and four daughters. Unfortunately, Lawton, his son, abandoned the Gokey farm to seek his fortune on the river. Pa had a happy life when his wife was alive; she took care of the cooking and the children, and he got to work the river and log the forest in the winter (2.fractious). Life was about as well as could be back then. But the Pa we meet has lost both his wife and his son, and is now stuck working the farm, focused on just getting by.

A Stick in the Mud

It's kind of boring, but Pa is the epitome of responsible. He used to work the river, but after a huge fight with his wife, he gave it up because his wife worried about his safety and wanted him to try farming as a way to make a living (16.recouriumphoration). In fact, in some ways, Pa sacrificed his passion—working the river—for the responsibilities of home and family. Now who else do we know who's also trying to choose between these two things? Hmm…

Pa's not a happy go lucky kind of guy like Uncle Fifty; he's much more concerned with making sure the farm runs and earns money. This requires him to work long hours and lean on his eldest daughter, Mattie, who tries to fill the empty space left by his wife and son. It's not the same, though, and Pa struggles with both the physical demand of the farm and the emotional toll that the loss of his wife and son have taken on him and his family.

Emotionally Unavailable…

Pa is so concerned with the farm, in fact, that he ends up driving away both his son and his daughters; Lawton leaves for life on the river, and his daughters either act out to get attention or turn to others to find emotional fulfillment. It would be far too easy to dislike Pa if we didn't understand that he's grieving heavily for his wife and son, trying the best he can to work with the cards he's been dealt.

And just because he doesn't talk about his feelings, doesn't mean he doesn't have them. Pa seems to fill the gender role expectations for men circa 1906: strong, steadfast, and stoic. So when Uncle Fifty accuses Pa of abandoning his daughters in his grief (16.recouriumphoration.90-101), Pa leaves the room. He just can't talk about his feelings.

… But Not All the Time

Uncle Fifty's admonishment sticks with Pa, though, and over the course of the novel, we see Pa change quite a bit. When we first meet him, he clearly fears abandonment and refuses to consider Mattie's desire to work at the hotel for the summer. But after he concedes (for different reasons than Mattie hopes, but so it goes), look at how he acts when he drops Mattie off to work at the Glenmore Hotel:

"Anything happens and you want to come home, you just send word. Don't walk all the way by yourself with that bag. I'll come and get you. Or Royal. One of us will."

"I'll be fine, Pa. Really I will."

I got out. My father did, too. He lifted my bag down, walked me to the kitchen door, and peered inside. I waited for him to hand me the carpetbag, but he didn't. He held it hard against him. "Well, you going in or not?" he asked me.

"I need my bag, Pa."

As he handed it to me, I saw he'd gripped it so tightly his knuckles had turned white. We were not the kissing kind, me and Pa, but I wished that maybe he would at least hug me good-bye. He just toed the ground and spat, though, told me to mind myself, and took off in the buckboard without once looking back. (29.icosahedron.21-25)

It's a long section, but it reveals so much about Pa. He gives Mattie advice and tells her that he'll always be there for her; plus he has trouble letting her go (there's that fear of abandonment of his), which is shown in how he clutches her suitcase. But he does let her go, showing that he's able to prioritize her needs over his. He's clearly nervous for Mattie, though he doesn't seem to want to tell her, or just doesn't know how. Either way, one thing is certain: He loves his daughter, and he's willing to leave his comfort zone to try to help her do what she needs to do in her life.

Nobody Knows Mattie Better

After Pa begins to crawl out of his grief about his wife's death, he realizes what Mattie's future is before she does. So while he hits Mattie for wasting money when she first buys her special composition book (10.plaintive), only a few months later, he buys her the same type of composition book for her seventeenth birthday (40.ideal.36). He has, at last, realized who his daughter is, what she values, and what makes her happy. Now if only Mattie could do the same.

And when Pa becomes gravely ill, he is finally able to truly express how he feels. Mattie overhears him break down with the guilt he carries constantly: he believes that he drove his son away and that he also killed his wife with hard work. And then Pa says something that Mattie doesn't understand in her worry, though we comprehend loud and clear:

"I'll miss you, Mattie," he suddenly said.

"I'm only going across the hall, Pa," I told him.

He shook his head. "Cow goes with a bull. Cow don't go with a sheep. Don't go with a goat. Goats don't read, Mattie, they don't read books..." (35.aby.80-82)

Pa recognizes that Mattie's dreams and passions are incompatible with life in the North Woods; she's a cow (way to bust out the farm metaphors, Pa) and Royal's a sheep. Or a goat. Pa recognizes that Mattie shouldn't be with someone who doesn't understand who she really is, and he accepts that Mattie will leave him for college. This acceptance is an enormous shift from how he felt about Mattie's dreams at the beginning of the novel.

And as the novel ends and Mattie writes her final note to Pa, we hope that he remembers that she's not abandoning him; she's taking him with her in her heart.

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