Study Guide

A Northern Light Family

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Chapter 5
Pa (Michael) Gokey

Pa looked at Royal, his shirt soaked with sweat, and my hands, dirty from the stones, and Pleasant unhitched, and put it all together. "I'm obliged to you," he said. "It's a son's work, planting. Not a daughter's. Thought I had a son to do it."

"Pa," I said quietly.

"Don't understand why he left. Couldn't tear me away from land like this," Royal said.

I bristled at that. I was angry at Lawton for leaving, too. But Royal was not family and therefore had no right to speak against him. (5.misnomer.49-52)

Family gets super complicated. Mattie doesn't like Pa speaking against her brother, and though she's upset with Lawton, too, when Royal disparages his choice, Mattie wants to defend her brother. It's usually like that with our own families. They might be idiots, but they're our idiots, and everyone else would be wise to watch their mouths.

Chapter 10
Pa (Michael) Gokey

There was a bill of sale on top of it, and money—a dirty, wrinkled bill. Ten dollars. For twelve gallons of maple syrup. I knew he'd been hoping for twenty.

I looked at him then. He looked tired. So tired. And worn and old.

"Mattie… Mattie, I'm sorry… I didn't mean to… ," he said, reaching for me.

I shook him off. "Never mind, Pa. Go to bed. We've got the upper field to plow tomorrow." (10.plaintive.14-17)

Pa's drunk here and has earned less money than he expected he would for the syrup he's made. Which is why he hits Mattie when he finds out she's earned money and hasn't shared it with the family. So we've got the trouble that lack of money can bring a family, combined with the responsibility Pa has to shoulder raising four girls without a wife, and Maggie recognizes how much of a toll this takes on him. It's pretty generous of her.

Chapter 16
Minor Characters

"You never a barrel of monkey, Michel, but you better den dis. What da hell wrong wid you? Dose girls, dey lose someone, too. Dey lose der mamma, den der brothair. But dey not turn into miserable stinking ghost like you."

"You've had too much whiskey, Francis. As usual."

"Not so much dat I don't know what I see."

"There's plenty you don't see." (16.recouriumphoration.98-101)

Sometimes it's only our family members who can get away with telling us harsh truths. Uncle Fifty, who has arrived after a lucrative logging job, is the only one who can tell Pa to his face how he's changed from the man he used to be, how he's let his grief for his wife and son color every aspect of his life. And then there's this idea of haunting that's repeated when Uncle Fifty calls Pa a "ghost." Pa is haunted: by his wife, by his guilt, and by the blame he heaps on himself for the dissolution of his family.

Chapter 23

I was standing in the middle of the kitchen, looking at my family, each one of them close enough to touch, my heart pounding so hard I thought it would burst.

There were more chores to do. The wood box next to the stove was nearly empty. There were ashes to dump down the outhouse and Abby could have used my help with the darning, but I felt as if the very walls themselves were pressing in upon me. As if I would go crazy if I stayed in this prison of a kitchen for one second longer. (23.dehiscence.1-2)

This scene is so visually jarring. The house looks tidy and everyone is industriously working in harmony, but Mattie feels totally trapped. What is it about a family that can both be so well run yet so confining at the same time?

Chapter 29
Pa (Michael) Gokey

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. (29.icosahedron.23-25)

Like many families, Mattie and her Pa have difficulty communicating. That's okay, though, because their emotions are pretty clear here: Pa wants to protect Mattie from the world and is having a hard time letting her go. (Um, the carpetbag is a pretty clear symbol for Mattie here.)

Chapter 35
Mathilda Gokey a.k.a. Mattie

"I went over early to see if Lou wanted to go fishing, and I knocked and knocked but no one came. The cows were bellowing, so I went in the barn. Daisy's real bad. She ain't been milked. Ain't none of them have. I didn't know what to do, Matt. I went inside the house ... They're all real bad. I found Lou in the grass by the outhouse, I got her inside, but—"

I didn't hear anything else for I was already running. Down the back steps to the Glenmore's drive and out to the Big Moose Road. (35.aby.15-16)

Even though Mattie feels that her future is slowly drawing her away from Eagle Bay and her family, when her family falls horribly ill, she goes immediately. It's in times of trouble that we realize how important family ties are.

Pa (Michael) Gokey

"Lawton does. Said it was my fault. That I killed her with hard work. Said I should have moved us all to Inlet and worked in the sawmill. Said I killed your mother and I wasn't going to kill him." And then his face crumpled and he sobbed like a child. "I didn't kill her; I loved her..." (35.aby.75)

Pa is virtually incoherent in his illness, but he reveals the guilt and sorrow he feels about his wife's death and his son's abandonment. This guilt takes a huge toll on not just him, but his four daughters as well. The strength of emotion is almost too much for him to bear.

Chapter 40

And under all that, wrapped up in the same sort of brown paper I recognized from Mr. Eckler's boat, was a thin, flat package. I opened it. It was a brand-new composition book. There was no inscription, but I knew it was from my pa. It was a nice thing for him to do and it should've made me happy, but instead it made me want to cry. (40.ideal.36)

The first time Mattie bought a brand-new composition book, her father smacked her across the face; this time, he's bought it for her birthday. What sort of realizations has he had about Mattie, and why might Mattie want to cry instead of being happy?

Royal Loomis

"None of Emmie's brats is any kin to me."

"He can't help how he got here; he's only a baby," I said softly.

He looked at me like I was Judas himself. Then he said, "What if it was your pa, Mattie? Taking the first milk of the year over to Emmie's when you and your sisters hadn't yet tasted any? Lying to your ma, leaving her standing in the barn crying? You think you'd give a damn what happened to the Hubbards then?" His voice had turned husky. I saw that it cost him to say these things. "My ma… she can't leave the house some days, she's that ashamed. Them books of yours tell you how that feels? You keep reading, maybe you'll find out." And then he walked off and left me standing by myself. (40.ideal.27-29)

Royal's experience with his own family kind of forces us to feel more empathy for him than we usually do. While we think he's cruel for wanting to kick the Hubbards off their land, it's much harder to hate him for it when it comes from a place of wanting to protect his family.

It's clear that Frank Loomis's constant infidelities have caused heartbreak and divisions in the Loomis family. Plus, there are all sorts of power struggles tangled up in the situation. Think of who has more power: Frank Loomis, wealthy male farmer, or Emmie Hubbard, poor widow. So family is tied up with pride and shame as well as power too.

Chapter 49

The conductor sees me. "Come on, missy!" he yells. "Her bark's worse than her bite!" He reaches down for me. I look around myself wildly, my heart bursting with grief and fear and joy. I am leaving, but I will take this place and its stories with me wherever I go. (49.63)

Mattie's physically leaving home and family, but thinks she'll take them with her. How can one take a place and its stories on a physical journey, and why might this idea give Mattie the comfort and courage she needs to leave Eagle Bay?

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