Study Guide

Royal Loomis in A Northern Light

By Jennifer Donnelly

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Royal Loomis

The second son of Frank Loomis, Royal is a little older than Mattie and the resident hottie in Eagle Bay. He's got one passion—farming—and can talk about it for hours.

Oh, Baby

Okay, we get that Royal Loomis is easy on the eyes—it's pretty much all Mattie talks about when she's with him—and we appreciate that physical attraction is part of a relationship. But c'mon Mattie. Royal? Royal? This is a guy who doesn't listen to a word Mattie says, a guy who clearly doesn't think it's important to value what Mattie values. Just look at him in action:

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)

Every time Mattie gets the chance to talk about what she wants, to share her thoughts and dreams, Royal sets her back. He talks all the time but never listens to Mattie, and as we can see in the excerpt above, when he does speak to her interests, it's pretty much to articulate their worthlessness. It's no wonder Mattie hopes for more depth as she gets to know him while he courts her. She tells us:

I'd always thought him inarticulate, but maybe he had a different sort of eloquence. Maybe he appreciated things other than words—the dark beauty of the lake, for example, or the awesome majesty of the forest. Maybe his quietness masked a great and boiling soul.

It was a quaint notion and one he soon dispelled.

"Skunk et all my chicks last night," he said. "Guts and feathers all over the yard. They were mine, those chicks. Planned to raise 'em and sell 'em come fall." (21.auger.31-33)

Yeah, still waters don't always run deep, and Mattie's pretty let down. Royal is a country boy through and through, and as the novel progresses, we realize that he isn't going to change when it comes to either his interests or getting to know Mattie and understand hers. He never adjusts his opinion of education, he never listens to Mattie, and while he does nice things for her, he never really understands her.

Shut it down, Mattie. Physical attraction just isn't enough.

North Woods American Gothic

Just because Royal is kind of two-dimensional doesn't mean that he has no desires of his own. Royal wants a farm. He's the second son, which means that his older brother will inherit the Loomis farm once their father dies, and Royal realizes that he's got to make his own way in the world.

It's when we learn of the machinations Royal has constructed with his mother that we realize he's not an idiot. In fact, Royal has identified a desire—a decent chunk of farmland—and a way to achieve his desire—marry Mattie, and kick the Hubbards off their land. It would be a good plan if it weren't so mercenary and manipulative.

In Royal's ideal world, he gets a wife to match the farm of his dreams. And his dream wife is absolutely nothing like Mattie. In fact, Royal wants a wife who fits the ideal of womanhood accepted in society, a woman who cooks, cleans, has any number of children, and makes her husband the center of her world. We wonder if he'd be better off with Martha Miller.

Let's Play Nice

It's easy to rag on Royal, but we have to remember that he's not all bad. He does do nice things for Mattie and her family, like plow their land for them and help when Mattie's family is sick, but we have a hard time determining whether he does these things because he's a good person or because he wants to worm himself into Mattie's affections.

Two events shed some light on Royal's more redeeming characteristics: when he saves Weaver Smith a boatload of trouble at the train station, and when he gives Mattie the cookbook.

When Weaver destroys a white tourist's suitcase at the train station after the tourist acts on super racist presumptions, it's Royal who is able to intervene and prevent the situation from escalating.

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)

It's so hard to tell whether Royal is saving the day because he thinks Weaver is worth saving or because he wants to impress Mattie. We know that Weaver thinks Royal is about as smart as a box of rocks (38.threnody.76), but Mattie seems to believe that Royal would help her take care of Weaver's mother if Weaver goes to college (45.leporine.40). So we don't really know why Royal stands up for Weaver at the train station, and instead are left to appreciate the intervention for what it achieves, which is the diffusion of a potentially dangerous situation.

And then there's the cookbook that Royal gives Mattie. She is so excited that Royal has chosen a book for her, but then super disappointed when it turns out that it's a cookbook. His effort, though, is earnest. He tells her:

"It ain't new, only secondhand. Got it at Turtle's. It's got different sections, see? Meats and poultry ... baked things..."

I could see in his eyes he wanted me to like it. I could see that he'd tried and it only made it worse. (40.ideal.52-53)

Royal is trying to make up with Mattie after a fight they've had by getting her something that he thinks she'll like. Unfortunately for Royal, though, his gift of a cookbook demonstrates two things: how little he knows Mattie, even after an entire spring of courtship, and how much he wants her to fit in to the social construct of womanhood of the region. You might even say it blows his cover (pun totally bad, and totally intended). Since we know that Mattie will never settle for him, this whole scene winds up feeling kind of pathetic.

But maybe that's fitting for a guy who's trying to get a farm without bothering to really get to know the young woman who stands to make this possible for him.

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