Study Guide

A Northern Light Language and Communication

By Jennifer Donnelly

Language and Communication

Chapter 2
Minor Characters

"I don't want no part of baby word games," Lou grumbled.

"Any, Lou. Any part," I snapped. Her carelessness with words made me angrier than her dirty mouth and the filthy state of her coveralls and the manure she'd tracked in, combined. (2.fractious.57-58)

It's pretty clear where Mattie's values lie: with language. Here we see her place importance on how others judge someone by the way that person communicates, an idea that we'll see again with her siblings and with Weaver. Of much less importance is Lou's physical appearance. Clearly Mattie values a person's mind and words over their physical characteristics… well, most of the time (ahem, Royal Loomis).

Chapter 3
Weaver Smith

"You ought to use your words, not collect them. You ought to write with them. That's what they're for," Weaver said. (3.abecedarian.60)

Weaver falls into a different camp than Mattie; while she likes to horde her words because they are so precious to her, he takes a much more utilitarian view. Words are meant to be used. And we have to wonder which view Mattie aligns herself with as she leaves Eagle Bay.

Minor Characters

"You sure have a big mouth, Weaver Smith," Minnie scolded. "Look what you did. You should say you're sorry."

"I'm not sorry. It's true."

"Lots of things are true. Doesn't mean you can go round saying them," Minnie said. (3.abecedarian.85-97)

Weaver accuses Mattie of giving up her dream because of the promise she made to her mother, and Mattie, torn up about the internal conflict, begins to cry. Take a close look at the conversation here: Minnie is the voice of conventional society, telling Weaver that the truth is less important than how a person feels. But Weaver… Weaver, like usual, is staunch in his conviction to speak honestly about Mattie's situation.

Chapter 7
Royal Loomis

He shook his head. "Words and stories," he said, turning onto the Uncas Road. "I don't know what you see in them. Waste of time, if you ask me."

"I didn't ask you."

Royal didn't hear me or he didn't care if he did. He just kept right on talking. "A man's got to know how to read and write, of course, to get along in the world and all, but beyond that, words are just words. They're not very exciting. Not like fishing or hunting." (7.unman.52-54)

Royal's acting like a mouthpiece for how society as a whole and men in particular view the importance—or lack of importance—of language. Consider his actions: Mattie says something pretty rude, but he's not listening. And consider how wrong he is: it's words that spark the racist events in the novel, and the lack of the right words that cause Mattie to break off their engagement. Look who's a waste of time now, Royal.

I thought of my word of the day. Can a girl be unmanned? I wondered. By a boy? Can she be unbrained? (7.unman.67)

Mattie uses language to makes sense of the world. Here she's using her word of the day and breaking it into its parts, trying to figure if it can describe her as well, although she's a woman. And the complexity with which Mattie sees the words transfers gradually to the world as well.

Chapter 14
Mathilda Gokey a.k.a. Mattie

"With just a few words. And then a few more. And then the words turned into insults and threats and worse, and then a man was dead. Just because of words."

Royal was silent, chewing on all I'd said, I imagined.

"I know you told me words are just words, Royal, but words are powerful things—"

I felt a poke in my back. "Hey, Mattie..."

I turned around. "What, Jim? What do you want?" I asked, irritated.

"There goes Seymour! Ain't you going to wave?"

"Who?"

"Seymour, Mattie! Seymour Butts!"

Jim and Will howled with laughter. Royal didn't actually laugh, but he grinned. And I was silent the rest of the way home. (14.monochromatic.97-105)

Right after Weaver gets into the conflict with the man at the train station, Royal gives Mattie a ride home. Whereas Mattie is contemplating the power of words and the meaning of them, Royal and his siblings demonstrate, somewhat insensitively, that words don't necessarily have to be important. In fact, they clearly communicate to Mattie that her words and ideas aren't important because they don't listen to her. So Mattie chooses to be silent.

Chapter 17

There was a silence. As I sat there on the stairs, I could picture my father's face. There would be anger on it as there so often is, but underneath it, there would be uncertainty and the painful shyness he has around educated people and their big words. My heart suddenly turned traitor on me, and I wanted to take Miss Wilcox by the arm and drag her out of the parlor and tell her to leave my pa alone. (17.furtive.33)

We get a little insight into why some of society reacts the way it does to language and education. Pa feels self-conscious because he's operating outside his comfort zone, and it's possible that Royal dismisses the importance of words because he, too, has forgone traditional schooling for the real-world education he gets from working his father's farm.

And take a look at how Mattie reacts to her father's vulnerability; she wants to protect him from the power that people with words have. So as we consider Mattie's view of words, we should also think about how other people think of words too.

Chapter 31
Weaver Smith

Mr. Sperry took Weaver's chin in his hand and grimaced at the damage. A cut eye that was already blackening. A nose that might well be broken. A lip as fat and shiny as a garden slug. "It's just a word, son. I've been called worse," he said.

"Beg your pardon, Mr. Sperry, but you haven't," Weaver said. "I'm going to the justice of the peace tomorrow," he added. "I'm telling him what happened. I'm pressing charges." (31.limicolous.18-19)

There are so many layers to the word Weaver was called; there's disdain and history and ignorance and self-righteousness and prejudice… the list goes on. Like Mattie, Weaver believes that words have power, and so he, because of his personality, refuses to let other men take power from him with his words.

Chapter 35

I had to steady myself against the dresser. I felt like someone had taken my legs out from under me. That's why they'd fought, I thought. That's why Pa had swung the peavey at Lawton and why Lawton had run away. That's why Pa never smiled anymore. Why he was so angry. Why he looked at us but never saw us. Oh, Lawton, I thought, some things should never, ever be said. Words are just words, Royal would say. But words are more powerful than anything. (35.aby.76)

Mattie has just found out that Lawton left because he accused Pa of killing his wife through hard work, and Pa believed—and continues to believe—this accusation. Even though Lawton is wrong, Pa can't escape the guilt and blame and sorrow that these words have caused. Do you think there are things that should never be said? What about honesty in communication?

Chapter 46
Mathilda Gokey a.k.a. Mattie

Voice, according to Miss Wilcox, is not just the sound that comes from your throat but the feeling that comes from your words. I hadn't understood that at first. "But Miss Wilcox, you use words to write a story, not your voice," I'd said.

"No, you use what's inside of you," she said. "That's your voice. Your real voice. It's what makes Austen sound like Austen and no one else. What makes Yeats sound like Yeats and Shelley like Shelley. It's what makes Mattie Gokey sound like Mattie Gokey. You have a wonderful voice, Mattie. I know you do, I've heard it. Use it." (46.9-10)

Although voice is traditionally tied to writing, it's also inherently tied to individuality. But consider too, a different meaning, a comparison between giving voice to something and remaining silent about it. Mattie has a voice as a writer, it's true, but she's trying to decide whether the sacrifices necessary to communicate her voice are worth the life she would have in Eagle Bay if she stayed silent.