Study Guide

A Northern Light Race

By Jennifer Donnelly

Race

Chapter 2
Mathilda Gokey a.k.a. Mattie

"And Mike Bouchard. And Weaver, too."

"Weaver Smith is no recommendation."

"Please, Pa," I whispered. (2.fractious.118-119)

Mattie wants to go work at the Glenmore Hotel to earn money for college, but Pa makes it clear that he doesn't approve of Weaver. We don't really know whether it's because Weaver fuels Mattie's dreams to be a writer or if it's because of race, but either way it's fairly standard for how race is treated in A Northern Light; it's complicated and entangled with other facets of society and people's beliefs.

Chapter 3

Weaver's mamma moved herself and Weaver up here from Mississippi after Weaver's father was killed right in front of them by three white men for no other reason than not moving off the sidewalk when they passed. She decided the farther north they got, the better. "Heat makes white people mean," she told Weaver and, having heard about a place called the Great North Woods, a place that sounded cold and safe, decided she and her son would move there. (3.abecedarian.51)

There's a lot we don't know here: when this occurred, how the events influenced Weaver and his mother's outlook on life, how his father's death affected his dreams. What we do know is that the violent murder must have had some serious psychological consequences for Weaver, and we can infer that Weaver's pursuit of justice stems from the injustice that comes from his father's death and racism.

Weaver always says freedom is like Sloan's Liniment, always promising more than it delivers. He says all it really means is being able to choose among the worst jobs at the logging camps, the hotels, and the tanneries. Until his people can work anywhere whites work, and speak their minds freely, and write books and get them published, until white men are punished for stringing up black men, no black person will ever really be free.

I was scared for Weaver sometimes. We had hillbillies in the North Woods, same as they had in Mississippi—ignorant folk just itching to blame their no-account lives on someone else—and Weaver never stepped off the sidewalk or doffed his hat. He'd scrap with anyone who called him n*****, and was never scared for himself. (3.abecedarian.54-55)

Focus on the phrase "freedom is […] always promising more than it delivers." How is this belief both true and false? Do you agree with Weaver's view of freedom? And also, examine what Mattie says about Weaver's character: he never gives in to social expectations of how he should act because of race; he never bows or scrapes to any white person. What does this reveal about Weaver's personality and what he believes and values?

My skin is so pale you can nearly see through it, and his is as dark as tobacco. There's more alike than different about Weaver and me, though. His palms are pink like mine. And his eyes are brown like mine. And inside, he's exactly like me. He loves words, too, and there is nothing he would rather do than read a book.

Weaver was the only black boy in Eagle Bay. (3.abecedarian.49-50)

Very early on in the novel, Mattie reveals that the similarities between her and Weaver are much more important to her (it remains to be seen whether other people hold the same opinion) than the color of Weaver's skin. But we wonder, throughout the novel, whether Mattie shares society's opinion or if she's the exception to the rule.

Chapter 14

Weaver's mamma had Weaver off to one side and was giving him the tongue-lashing of the century. She was furious. Was she ever! Her eyes were blazing and she was shaking her finger at him and slapping her palm against his chest. I couldn't hear it all, but I did hear that "damn fools who get themselves locked up in jail can't go to college." Weaver's eyes were on the ground, his head was hanging. He raised it for a few seconds, long enough to say something to her, and then in an instant all the rage left her and she went limp like a popped tire and started crying and Weaver put his arms around her. (14.monochromatic.83)

Based on what we know of Weaver, we understand that he must feel ashamed; when Mattie stopped him, he was shaking with anger and grief, so perhaps his reaction to the man was less controlled than he would have liked. But we wonder what Weaver said to his mother that would cause her rage to dissipate and her grief and terror to manifest in tears. Welcome to the limits of first-person narration, Shmoopsters.

Royal Loomis

But she didn't get to finish her sentence, because another voice cut in. "No, mister, you surely don't want to make trouble. Best be on your way before his pa shows up. Or his brothers. He's got five. And each one of 'em's meaner than the next."

It was Royal. He was standing on the platform, arms crossed over his chest. He stood tall. His shoulders were broad under his shirt, his arms were thick and powerful. (14.monochromatic.76-77)

This is what makes race so complex in the novel: Royal, whom we know is a pretty insensitive, selfish jerk, stands up for Weaver and most likely prevents the situation from worsening. But why does he do it? Is he trying to get Mattie to think better of him, or is it because he's got a more complex view of race than we assume he would?

Weaver Smith

Weaver shook me off. He turned around and smiled. A huge, horrible smile. "Why, sure, Mistuh Boss, suh!" he hollered. "I be right along, suh, right along! On de double!"

"Weaver!" his mother called. Her voice sounded frightened.

"Weaver, don't!" I hissed, not knowing what he was going to do but knowing from experience that it wouldn't be smart or good. (14.monochromatic.60-62)

When a man in the train station treats Weaver as a simple servant, Weaver code-switches, dropping his real persona and adapting a way of speaking that fits the man's idea of what a black man is or should be. Notice the change in his tone and his speaking. Notice, too, that Mattie and Weaver's mamma are scared for him. We have to wonder if Weaver is scared for himself or just angry, and where the emotion and drive to stand up for himself, given the lack of social power he possesses, comes from.

Chapter 31
Minor Characters

"He was attacked," John said. "In front of the station. The train was late. I went to talk to the stationmaster and left Weaver in the wagon. Three men came out of the Summit Hotel. Trappers. They were drunk. They said some things. Weaver answered back. One of them hauled him out of the seat and all three of them beat him. I heard the noise, ran out, and broke it up."

"Three to one, Weaver? For God's sake, why didn't you just keep quiet?"

"They called me n*****." (31.limicolous.15-17)

Significantly, the beating takes place off-page, which places the focus of the event on Weaver's reaction and others' reactions. There's very little emotion in the description of the event. Though Mr. Sperry wonders why Weaver can't keep his mouth closed, we know that Weaver would never passively accept racist remarks heaped upon his person. He's too righteous for that, and although he has been physically beaten, his spirit has not.

Mathilda Gokey a.k.a. Mattie

"Hush, Weaver, just let it go," I said, wrapping up a chunk of ice in a towel. "A few days in the kitchen won't kill you. It's better than losing your job. Here, hold this against your lip."

"Don't have much of a choice, do I?" he grumbled. He pressed the ice to his lip, winced, then said, "Three more months, Matt. Just three more months and I'm gone from here. Once I get through Columbia, once I'm a lawyer, ain't no one ever going to hand me a suitcase. Or call me boy or n***** or Sam. Or hit me. And if they do, I'll make sure they go to jail." (31.limicolous.26-27)

As understanding as Mattie can be, she doesn't quite get the depth of injustice that Weaver experiences because of his race. Yes, he's angry about being confined to the kitchen, but he's far angrier about the injustice that he is essentially being punished while the trappers are currently roaming free. College is the way for Weaver to right the wrongs of the world, and he's bent on achieving it. Which makes the death of his dream of college even more devastating.

Chapter 34

"Now I need you to do the same, and then I'm going to give them a short vacation in Herkimer, as guests of the State of New York. They'll get a cozy little room and some new clothes, too. The kind with stripes on 'em."

For the first time in days, Weaver smiled. "Thank you, Mr. Higby. I appreciate you taking the time over it."

"Just doing my job. I've got to find Dwight and talk business for a bit. I'll call for you on my way out."

Mr. Higby went to find Mr. Sperry and Weaver went back to the sink. His head was high. His back was straight. His eyes, so dark with anger for the last four days, were filled with a clear and righteous light. (34.saltant.22-25)

It's not that Weaver resents being confined to the kitchen because of his face, it's the injustice of the situation that causes his bad mood for the four days he's stuck in the kitchen. In this case, Weaver's being treated justly by the law, and this justice in the face of injustice gives him back his dignity.

Chapter 45

His mamma had lost her house. And some had said it was his fault for going to the justice. They said none of it would have ever happened if he'd just stepped aside for those trappers in the first place and kept his big mouth shut. (45.leporine.13)

This instance is one of the few times we see the undercurrents of racism running through town gossip—fault and blame are placed on Weaver for his mother's misfortune instead of on the three white trappers. The reality for Mattie and Weaver is that for as many people bent on pursuing justice and eradicating racism, there are people who believe that the status quo suffices.