Study Guide

Weaver Smith in A Northern Light

By Jennifer Donnelly

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Weaver Smith

Welcome to the Nerdery

Weaver's the only black boy in the Eagle Bay region, and he moved there from Mississippi with his mother after his father was killed in front of them. His mother works constantly and stashes away every penny she can, so that Weaver can go to college. Like Mattie, Weaver loves books and literature, but he is less seduced by the word themselves and much more interested in what words can do for him. He says:

"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)

Language, to Weaver, is a tool instead of a collector's item. In fact, though we know that Weaver loves literature as much as Mattie does, we get the sense that he's much more aware of its complexity and nuance than Mattie is. Check out the following conversation between these two super nerdy friends:

"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?" […]

"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." (45.leporine.3, 6-8)

Weaver's a pretty sophisticated thinker, and he recognizes that though some books are, like Mattie says, uncomplicated, there are plenty of others that are far too complicated. Characters like Heathcliff and Rochester manifest on the page some of the complexities of being alive—much like how Weaver does in this book.

Playing the Game

When we compare the determination Weaver has to Mattie's determination, he wins, hands down. While Mattie vacillates in her commitment to her dream, Weaver never loses sight of his hope of college. Part of this may be due to his background—Weaver's mother is in full-support of his college ambitions—but we also have to consider that Weaver is just more tenacious than Mattie. The odds, after all, are super stacked against him as a young black man. When Mattie asks him how he gets others to bend to his will, he gives her some advice:

"Never take what's offered, Matt. Always ask for more." (30.obstreperous.12)

Considering how little society offers Weaver, this is an impressive motto for him to live by. Weaver refuses the expectations society has for a young black man, and keeps his eyes on the prize of living his life as he wants to, instead of as society would prefer him to. He firmly believes that every person, no matter who they are, should be afforded basic human rights, and while we couldn't agree more, this causes some friction between him and the people who care for him. Check out Mattie's thoughts on this:

I was scared for Weaver sometimes. […] 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.55)

Weaver refuses to bow to expectations or to live by the racist principles white folks so often wish he would; it is a brave and sometimes dangerous way of being in the world, and both Mattie and his mother fear for his safety. But their worries don't bother Weaver because his convictions are so strong.

Intense Injustice

Although Donnelly is careful not to let race and racism overshadow who Weaver actually is, race is an undeniable factor in his story line, and we see undercurrents of race in many of the interactions he has with people. Even when we first meet Weaver, we get some insight into what he thinks about justice and injustice. Check it out:

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. (3.abecedarian.54)

Strong words from a seventeen-year-old boy, but Weaver, because of his life experiences, is wise beyond his years. Unfortunately, though, wisdom and commitment to true freedom only get Weaver so far, and that he is so clearly such a bright, driven, and kind young man highlight just how unjust the injustice he experiences is.

When the three trappers who attack Weaver caught and sent to jail, Weaver dares to believe that justice is prevailing, that for once the law is one the side of the black man instead of the white. He tells Mattie:

"It changes everything," he replied. "That's three men who might think twice before they go around calling people names and beating them up."

"Three out of a million."

"Then I've only got 999,997 left to go, haven't I?"

That was Weaver. Determined to change the world. Three dirty, drunken, no-good trappers at a time. (34.saltant.31-34)

But once the trappers are out, Weaver's dream of college is destroyed when they burn his home, injure his mother, and steal his college fund. Understandably, Weaver's hope crumbles. He's spent so long standing up for what he believes is right, and the trappers will most likely never be brought to justice. Plus, not only is Weaver's college money gone and his mother hurt, the people in his community say that the loss of his home and his mother's broken arm are:

[…] 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)

Ugh. Not only has Weaver's dream of college been torn from him, he also feels betrayed by his community. The ignorant and racist folk of Eagle Bay finally have, in effect, killed his idealism, so when Mattie cries for Weaver, she's grieving the death of both his dream and his ideals. Weaver faces an uphill battle each time he fights for justice—whether in terms of education or basic safety—and every time he's outnumbered.

Not All Is Lost

The novel, though it doesn't have a happy ending for Weaver, provides an opportunity for him. After Mattie pays Emmie Hubbard's taxes so that the Hubbards don't have to move and Weaver's mamma has a place to stay, she also gives Weaver money to get to New York. This peace of mind about his mother's welfare just might be enough to give Weaver back some of his idealism, though we don't know for sure as the book closes. Our fingers are definitely crossed for him, though. If anyone can rally, after all, it's Weaver.

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