Study Guide

A Northern Light Literature and Writing

By Jennifer Donnelly

Literature and Writing

Chapter 3
Weaver Smith

"The stories Miss Wilcox sent to New York weren't about kings or musketeers," Weaver said. "That one about the hermit Alvah Dunning and his Christmas all by himself, that was the best story I ever read."

"And old Sam Dunnigan wrapping up his poor dead niece and keeping her in the icehouse all winter till she could be buried," Minnie added. (3.abecedarian.68-69)

Even early in A Northern Light, Mattie's drawn to the compelling nature of both her community and the reality of life within her community. And her friends realize that the reality of their lives is far more interesting to them than some of the more elusive topics of literature.

Chapter 6

Fesole, Valdarno, Vallombrosa… Where in blazes are those places? I wondered. Why couldn't Satan have decided to visit the North Woods? Old Forge, maybe, or even Eagle Bay. Why didn't he talk like real people did? With a cripes or a jeezum thrown in now and again. Why did little towns in Herkimer County never get a mention in anybody's book? Why was it always other places and other lives that mattered? (6.somniferous.9)

Here's the crux of Mattie's problem with classic, canonical literature like John Milton's Paradise Lost: she can't relate to it. And she feels like her life, and the lives of the people around her, aren't important. Thank goodness she eventually realizes that the world in which she's living is one of the most important stories she can tell after all.

Chapter 9

I have read so many books, and not one of them tells the truth about babies. Dickens doesn't. Oliver's mother just dies in childbirth and that's that. Bronte doesn't. Catherine Earnshaw just has her daughter and that's that. There's no blood, no sweat, no pain, no fear, no heat, no stink.

Writers are damned liars. Every single one of them. (9.wan.48-49)

Mattie's just seen her friend Minnie undergo the agony of childbirth, and it seriously affects her view on marriage and childbirth, especially because she's never seen the truth of birth before. But more importantly, Mattie accuses her precious books of lying to her—and no one likes a liar.

Chapter 12
Mathilda Gokey a.k.a. Mattie

"You could loan it to me. I'd pay it all back… every penny of it. Please, Aunt Josie?" I spoke those last words in a whisper.

My aunt didn't reply right away; she just looked at me in such a way that I suddenly knew just how Hester Prynne felt when she had to stand on that scaffold. (12.UriahtheHittite,stinkpot,warthog.59-60)

Even though Mattie thinks that the literature she reads doesn't necessarily relate to her, there are moments when it clearly does. And when Aunt Josie refuses to give Mattie money to go to Barnard, Mattie connects how she feels to how a character in a book feels. Notably, when Mattie compares her life to literary characters in A Northern Light, it's usually to characters who are undergoing stress or conflict.

Chapter 17

"She don't need to make something more. She's fine as she is. There ain't a thing wrong with her."

"She could be a writer, sir. A real one. A good one."

"She's already a writer. She writes stories and poems in them notebooks of hers all the time."

"But she needs the challenge of a real college curriculum, and the guidance of talented teachers, to improve. She needs exposure to emerging voices, to criticism and theory. She needs to be around people who can nurture her talent and develop it." (17.furtive.29-32)

When Mattie and her sisters overhear the conversation between Miss Wilcox and Pa, Mattie hears what she already knows about being a writer: it's hard work, and Pa has some serious reservations about her going down this path. Fingers crossed he comes around… spoiler alert: he does.

Chapter 21
Royal Loomis

"I heard what you said, it just don't make sense. Why do you always want to read about other people's lives, Matt? Ain't your own good enough for you?"

I didn't reply to that because I knew my voice would quaver if I did. (21.auger.51-52)

Unfortunately, Royal hits Mattie's conundrum right on the head. She's not sure if her life is good enough for her. She's got these ambitions to study and write for a living, but she's not sure what she's willing to sacrifice to achieve these ambitions. It doesn't help that Royal scorns Mattie's love of books and literature as worthless. (Seriously, girl, what do you see in him?)

Chapter 22
Mathilda Gokey a.k.a. Mattie

"I'm sorry, Miss Wilcox," I said, looking at the floor. "I don't mean to be coarse. I just ... I don't know why I should care what happens to people in a drawing room in London or Paris or anywhere else when no one in those places cares what happens to people in Eagle Bay."

Miss Wilcox's eyes were still fixed on me, only now they were shiny. Like they were the day I got my letter from Barnard. "Make them care, Mattie," she said softly. "And don't you ever be sorry." (22.glean.82-83)

Mattie has just finished communicating to Miss Wilcox and her sister Lou that writers are liars and talking about how they need to be talking about topics closer to their readers' hearts. And Miss Wilcox pushes the importance of literature again: writing is meant to make people care about the common people. This interaction becomes more meaningful when we think about Miss Wilcox as Emily Baxter, revolutionary feminist poet.

Chapter 23

Emily Baxter's poems made my head hurt. They made me think of so many questions and possibilities. Reading one was like pulling a stump. You got hold of a root and tugged, hoping it would come right up, but sometimes it went so deep and so far, you were halfway to the Loomis farm and still pulling. (23.dehiscence.10)

How is Mattie's reaction to Emily Baxter different from her reaction to other authors, like John Milton and Alexandre Dumas? Why might the realism of Baxter's writing appeal to Mattie more than the unrealistic stories she's read?

Chapter 33

And I knew in my bones that Emily Dickinson wouldn't have written even one poem if she'd had two howling babies, a husband bent on jamming another one into her, a house to run, a garden to tend, three cows to milk, twenty chickens to feed, and four hired hands to cook for. (33.gravid.46)

Mattie, already a budding writer, has to wait until night and write with a smudgy pencil in a composition book by firelight. She knows the dedication that it takes to write, and she fears for her own writing ability if she has to pop out kids, run a house and farm, and cook.

Chapter 39

"Thought you were so smart, didn't you, Mattie? You, with your head always shoved in a book. Royal says you know a lot of words, but you don't even know how to please..."

"Martha, you say one more word and I'll slap your mouth right off your face," Fran said. "I swear to God I will." (39.confabulate.110-111)

We all know Martha is jealous of Royal's attentions to Mattie, and we know that her sentence ends with the words a man, but Martha sets up a question, and we wonder if it's true or false. Does being literary prevent a person from really knowing the world around them? That is, can Mattie be literary and a writer and married and housewifey? Or does she have to choose between the two?

Chapter 40
Mathilda Gokey a.k.a. Mattie

I saw Frank Loomis's hairy behind in my mind's eye and Emmie bent over the stove. "Royal, you ... you know?"

"For god's sake, Mattie. Everyone in the whole damn county knows."

"I didn't know."

"That ain't hardly a surprise. You're too interested in what Blueberry Finn and Oliver Dickens and all the rest of them made-up people are doing to see what's going on right around you." (40.ideal.16-19)

Is Mattie's ignorance of her reality due to her nose in a book, or is it due to something else, perhaps her responsibilities to her family? Is it fair for Royal to make this accusation of Mattie, or is he right in some ways that Mattie forgoes her community for the community of literature? And how does he feel about Mattie's love of and involvement with literature?

Chapter 45
Mathilda Gokey a.k.a. Mattie

"Why isn't real life like book life?" I asked, sitting down next to him. "Why aren't people plain and uncomplicated? Why don't they do what you expect them to do, like characters in a novel?" I took my shoes and stockings off and dangled my feet in the water, too.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, Bill Sikes is bad. So's Fagin. Just plain bad. Oliver and Mr. Brownlow are good. So's Pip. And Dorrit."

Weaver thought about this, then said, "Heathcliff is both. He's more than both. So's Rochester. You never know what they're going to do." He looked at me. "This is about Emmie, isn't it? You don't know what to make of her now."

"No, I don't." (45.leporine.3-7)

Mattie is gradually realizing that the characters around her are far more interesting than the characters in her books. We hope that this will push her to write the realism of her life and the people in it when she departs for Barnard College in New York.