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A murder at an idyllic hotel in upstate New York… Clues left behind in love letters… It sounds like the heart of the story, right? But no, the real heart of this one is the narrator, a teenage girl named Mattie Gokey.
Mattie is working at the Glenmore Hotel when Grace Brown's body is found in the lake; her fellow boater, Carl Grahm, has gone missing. As Grace is brought into the hotel and laid out in the parlor, Mattie is stunned, because earlier that day, Grace gave Mattie a bundle of letters, along with instructions to burn them. Because of the unfolding events, Mattie has a hunch that her life is about to drastically change.
The whole novel moves back and forth between present and past. In the present, indicated by untitled chapters, Mattie struggles to make sense of Grace's death by reading Grace's letters. In the past, indicated by chapters titled with one of Mattie's words of the day, Mattie considers how she has come to the point she has in her life: working at the Glenmore Hotel and engaged to Royal Loomis. The two story lines merge when Mattie makes a pretty big decision at the end of her vigil over Grace's body.
The first flashback introduces us to the chaos of the Gokey household: Mattie has to take care of three younger sisters (Abby, Lou, and Beth) while Pa tries to manage the farm as best he can. Mamma died from cancer in December of 1905, and Mattie's older brother, Lawton, abandoned the family a few months afterwards. Mattie struggles to fill the void these absences have left, and she also struggles to figure out a way to make her dream—going to college in New York—a financial reality.
We also meet Weaver Smith and Minnie Compeau, Mattie's two best friends. Minnie is very pregnant and cranky. Weaver shares Mattie's love of language and literature, as well as her dream that there's more to life than Eagle Bay; he too wants to venture to New York and attend college, though he has his own struggles because of his race (he's African American). Further complicating Mattie's life is the interest that Royal Loomis, one of her neighbors, takes in her; he's the second-oldest Loomis boy, and Mattie's got a serious crush on him.
Mattie gets accepted to Barnard College, though she realizes that without money she'll never be able to attend, so Mattie sets out to find ways to fund her dream. First, she asks her wealthy Aunt Josie, for whom she cleans on a weekly basis, but Josie just calls her selfish. And when Mattie tells Royal her dreams, he just wonders why she would want to leave the only home she's ever known. Then he kisses her, and Mattie doesn't really know what she wants. (Romance has a way of muddling our brains.)
Weaver has his own problems. He's been accepted into Columbia College, but he acts out after a white man at the train station assumes Weaver is a lowly porter. In Weaver's rage, we get a hint of the responsibility and the anger he feels about the inequalities he experiences.
Minnie, too, is having a difficult time. When Mattie visits her one day, she arrives just in time to assist the midwife and Minnie in the horribly realistic birth of Minnie's twin son and daughter. After this, Mattie vows that she will never let herself to become pregnant.
In the present at the hotel, Mattie wonders whether promises must be kept, even if the person whom she made the promise to is dead, drawing a correlation between the promises she's made to Grace Brown and her own mother.
In another extensive flashback, Pa's brother Uncle Fifty arrives, drunk and with some money from a logging trip. When Mattie reveals that she's just taken exams to receive her high school diploma, Uncle Fifty promises to give her money to go to college. But after Uncle Fifty's promise is broken, she realizes that Pa is the only person who's been consistently there for her.
In the present at the hotel, Mattie decides to read Grace's letters, and she realizes that Carl Grahm (the man whom Grace came to the hotel with) is really named Chester Gillette. A phone call reveals to the hotel owner and manager that Carl Grahm is, indeed, an alias. Dun dun dun…
In another flashback, as Mattie once again dusts for Aunt Josie, her aunt and another town gossip open mail meant for Mattie's poor, widowed neighbor, Emmie Hubbard. The letter states that Emmie will be evicted and her land auctioned if she can't pay back taxes, which would make the widow and her many children homeless. Mattie reflects on the disparity between wealthy and poor people, but social issues are driven from her mind when she and Royal go boating… and he kisses her again.
When she and Lou are invited to lunch at Miss Wilcox's home, Miss Wilcox offers Mattie a job cleaning the library, in return for borrowing as many books as she'd like. Mattie eagerly agrees. And Mattie comes to the conclusion that she must choose between writing as a career and having a family, because she surely won't be able to do both. (Has she been talking to Virginia Woolf or something?)
In the present at the hotel, as Mattie continues to read Grace's letters, she realizes that Grace is pregnant with Chester Gillette's child. The plot just keeps getting thicker, Shmoopsters.
Once again flashing back to earlier that spring, Mattie arrives at Miss Wilcox's house for work and overhears a fight between her teacher and an unknown man. After the man storms out, Miss Wilcox admits that she is actually scandalous Emily Baxter and that her husband is trying to control her. Duly noted.
Later, Royal tries to put some moves on Mattie, which she refuses until he assures her that he's serious in his intentions. And even later, when Tommy Hubbard asks Mattie to console his mother after she finds out about her land being auctioned, Mattie sees Frank Loomis, Royal's father, having sex with Emmie Hubbard in her kitchen. Embarrassed both by the situation and the fact that Tommy is aware of the relationship between his mother and neighbor, Mattie realizes that Frank Loomis is probably the father of a few of Emmie Hubbard's children.
In the present at the hotel, while reading Grace's letters, Mattie realizes that Chester brought Grace to the Glenmore to kill her.
Again flashing back to late spring and early summer, Mattie starts work as a waitress at the Glenmore because her father needs the money to pay for a new mule. The kitchen is chaotic, but Mattie relishes the friendships she's developing and the new experiences she's having. Until Weaver comes back to the hotel horribly beaten by three trappers, that is. The worker who rescued Weaver explains to the hotel owner that the three men called Weaver the n word, and Weaver defended himself.
Confined to the kitchens until his face heals, Weaver regains his dignity after the three men are caught and jailed. Then Mattie's family becomes horribly ill, and she leaves the hotel for a week to care for them. Without Royal's mother's help and the aid of Weaver's mamma, Mattie wouldn't have been able to cope with the responsibility of the illness; she decides to accept Royal's proposal and the ring.
In the present at the hotel, when Mattie compares the love Grace feels for Chester and the love she feels for Royal, she realizes that both she and Grace hope that love will be returned—but both women realize it isn't. Ugh.
In mid-summer, Mattie and Weaver borrow a horse to see Miss Wilcox one last time before she leaves town. During the conversation, Miss Wilcox says she has to flee to France to escape her controlling husband, and Mattie explains that she's going to stay and marry Royal Loomis. During a huge Fourth of July celebration at the hotel, Mattie learns that Royal Loomis and his mother are the ones conspiring to get Emmie Hubbard and her children kicked off their land, and even though the two sort of reconcile, Mattie realizes that Royal doesn't love her.
The trappers who beat up Weaver are released from jail, burn Weaver's mamma's farm, break her arm, and steal the money saved up for Weaver's college dreams. Emmie Hubbard invites Weaver's mamma to stay with her until the arm heals, and because Weaver feels a responsibility to his mother, he decides to give up his dream to help his mother rebuild her life. Mattie grieves for the death of Weaver's dream.
As she nears the end of the night in present day at the hotel, Mattie realizes that she can't burn Grace's letters, for if she does, injustice will prevail.
As the two story lines merge, the fallout of the fire at Weaver's mamma's house is more positive than anticipated—Emmie Hubbard and Weaver's mamma appear to be building a life together, and Tommy Hubbard plans to work for Pa in Mattie's absence.
But it's not enough for Mattie. She leaves Grace's letters on the hotel manager's desk. Then, she takes all the money she's earned over the summer and divides it up: some goes to Pa to pay for the mule, some goes to pay Emmie Hubbard's back taxes so that she won't become homeless, and she keeps some to get to New York. The rest she gives to Weaver, telling him that she's leaving because Grace Brown can't; then before she gets cold feet, she makes her way to the train station and boards a train to take her to her future in New York City.