Study Guide

A Northern Light Coming of Age

By Jennifer Donnelly

Coming of Age

Chapter 1

What had I seen? Too much. What did I know? Only that knowledge carries a damned high price. Miss Wilcox, my teacher, had taught me so much. Why had she never taught me that? (1.38)

One of the horrible markers of adulthood is the realization that adults, especially role models, are never as infallible as we think they are. They, like everyone else, have flaws, and in this case, Mattie realizes that a little knowledge is indeed a dangerous thing.

Chapter 3

I had looked around. I'd seen all the things she'd spoken of and more besides. I'd seen a bear cub lift its face to the drenching spring rains. And the silver moon of winter, so high and blinding. I'd seen the crimson glory of a stand of sugar maples in autumn and the unspeakable stillness of a mountain lake at dawn. I'd seen them and loved them. But I'd also seen the dark of things. The starved carcasses of winter deer. The driving fury of a blizzard wind. And the gloom that broods under the pines always. Even on the brightest of days. (3.abecedarian.93)

Mattie is torn in her writing. Miss Parrish wants her to write the beauty of the world with reverence and respect, but Mattie is drawn to the dark reality too; she knows that life is more complicated than the novels she reads. It indicates a certain maturity to how she sees the world.

Chapter 8
Mathilda Gokey a.k.a. Mattie

I would have liked to tell Mr. Palmer just how old and feeble that joke is, but instead I said, "Oh, of course, sir! How clever of you!" because I had learned a thing or two during my time at the Glenmore. About when to tell the truth and when not to. (8.6)

One mark of maturity is learning the rules of the game. Mattie has learned how to work the dining room to her advantage, though she never really develops the mercenary nature of either Weaver or Fran. She's too earnest and good-hearted for that.

Chapter 9

Minnie arched her back and screamed. I thought for sure Mrs. Crego would kill her. I held her arms tightly and buried my face in her back and prayed for it to end.

I'd never known it was like this for a woman. Never. We'd always been sent to Aunt Josie's when Mamma's time was near. We would stay there overnight, and when we came back, there was Mamma smiling with a new baby in her arms. (9.wan.46-47)

Childbirth seems to be one of the transitions from childhood to womanhood and adulthood that is never talked about. Mattie's never seen the truth of it, and when she realizes what labor and delivery (in 1906) are actually like, she has to wonder if married life is for her.

Chapter 22
Mathilda Gokey a.k.a. Mattie

My voice trembled as I spoke, as it did whenever I was angry. "I feel let down sometimes. The people in books—the heroes—they're always so… heroic. And I try to be, but…"

"… you're not," Lou said, licking deviled ham off her fingers.

"… no, I'm not. People in books are good and noble and unselfish, and people aren't that way ... and I feel, well… hornswoggled sometimes. By Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and Louisa May Alcott. Why do writers make things sugary when life isn't that way?" I asked too loudly. "Why don't they tell the truth? Why don't they tell how a pigpen looks after the sow's eaten her children? Or how it is for a girl when her baby won't come out? Or that cancer has a smell to it? All those books, Miss Wilcox," I said, pointing at a pile of them, "and I bet not one of them will tell you what cancer smells like. I can, though. It stinks. Like meat gone bad and dirty clothes and bog water all mixed together. Why doesn't anyone tell you that?" (22.glean.77-79)

Mattie takes issue with the false but beautiful world presented to her in books. Previously, she was okay with the characters and the authors' choices, but now she's beginning to question the verity of some of what she's read. In fact, Mattie's starting to look far more critically at literature than she ever has before, and critical thinking is one marker of adulthood.

Chapter 27
Mathilda Gokey a.k.a. Mattie

"Tommy… tell your ma… tell her I'll call on her a bit later, all right? All right, Tom? Here… here are some biscuits. Take them in to her when… when you can."

Tommy didn't answer me. His thin shoulders sagged from the weight of knowing. I could feel the heaviness, too, and it made me angry. I didn't want it. Didn't want to carry it. Tommy took the food, but he wouldn't look at me. (27.hispidulous.36-37)

Mattie has just realized the true nature of Frank Loomis and Emmie Hubbard's relationship. And this knowledge, and the shame it brings not only her but her friend Tommy, weighs heavily on her soul. She doesn't want to shoulder the knowledge, but she's got no choice.

Chapter 28

But myself is not listening. She refuses to listen. She's picking up another letter and another and another, frantically looking for a different answer.

She feels sick, so sick she could vomit.

Because she thinks she knows why Chester brought Grace here.

And it wasn't to elope. (28.22-25)

Poor Mattie. Poor Grace. Mattie's realization that Chester brought Grace to the North Woods to kill her is the nail in the coffin. (Too soon?) Mattie's right; a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. And we wonder at this point in the novel what Mattie will do with her knowledge of the Grace/Chester affair.

Chapter 29
Mathilda Gokey a.k.a. Mattie

"Things ain't always what they seem, Mattie. You remember that. Just because a cat has her kittens in the oven, it don't make 'em biscuits." Things are never what they seem, Pa, I thought. I used to think they were, but I was wrong or stupid or blind or something. Old folks are forever complaining about their failing eyesight, but I think your vision gets better as you get older. Mine surely was. (29.icosahedtrom.7-8)

Mattie's learning more and more about her community and her world, and she's leaving the ignorance of childhood behind for a multi-faceted view of the world. It's not always easy to come to terms with these realizations, but Mattie is determined to do so—and Pa seems to think she's ready, too.

Chapter 31
Mathilda Gokey a.k.a. Mattie

"But it's not right, sir. I shouldn't be called names. Shouldn't catch a beating. Shouldn't have to stay in the kitchen, either."

"How old are you, Weaver? Seventeen or seven? Don't you know that what should be and what is are two different things? You should be dead. Luckily, you aren't. You think on that the next time you decide to take on three grown men." He stormed back out. (31.limicolous.22-24)

Mattie's not the only person maturing throughout the novel. After Weaver gets in the fight with the trappers, he, too, has to come to terms with how the world is versus how he wants it to be. Mr. Sperry, the owner of the hotel, compares Weaver to a child, and in some ways, he's right—there's a big difference between childish idealism and idealism tempered with a mature view of reality, after all. Which does Weaver have, and how does his idealism change throughout the novel?

Chapter 48

It was a dreadful thing that he did, and he is not to be admired for it, but right then I felt I understood why he did it. I even felt a little sorry for him. He probably just wanted some company, for it is very lonely knowing things. (48.luciferous.45)

Mattie is thinking of Lucifer from Milton's Paradise Lost and thinking that instead of apologizing to God, Lucifer tricked Adam and Eve and got humans banished from the Garden of Eden forever. Here Mattie not only demonstrates empathy for the quintessential villain (and empathy is another marker of adulthood), she also shows that she knows the dangers of knowledge.