A can-do girl

Mattie Gokey, the feisty narrator of Jennifer Donnelly's "A Northern Light," is a classic heroine - a brave, smart girl whose courage and wit gets her into all the right sort of trouble.

Set in upstate New York in 1906 against the backdrop of the Chester Gillette murder case (the inspiration for Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy"), "A Northern Light" is a quintessential coming-of-age story. Inspired by letters left in her care by a mysterious young woman, and challenged by the pressing needs of her beloved family and a promise to her dying mother, Mattie must find a way to balance her responsibilities with her desire to go to college and become a writer.

"Xerophilous, my word of the day, means able to withstand drought, or adapted to a dry region," the dictionary-reading Mattie tells us. "Standing in Mrs. Loomis's spotless kitchen, where there were no incontinent dogs, or flea-bitten Hubbards or yellowed pictures from old calendars curling up on the walls, I wondered if only plants could be xerophilous or if people could be too."

It's not a new story: A feisty young woman manages to escape crushing cultural expectations in the early 20th century. But it's exceptionally well told. Honest and unflinching in its portrayal of loss, poverty, racism, and pregnancy, it nonetheless avoids melodrama and polemic. And its witty and oddball supporting cast (a renegade poet teacher, an encouraging schoolmate, and a handsome but dull next door neighbor) add complexity and color to Mattie's journey. The best thing about this book, however, is Mattie's smart, vulnerable voice. We share her desires, if not her unique challenges, on every page.

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