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"A Gathering Light" by Jennifer Donnelly
This was another book picked up from the Westfield Centre Bookcrossing shelf and one I thought might appeal to both my husband and me. From the blurb on the back it sounded like it might be a bit of crime fiction but in fact despite the fact that the story is loosely based on a read murder that shocked the district at the time in the Adirondack Mountain area of New York State at the turn of the century there rarely us not much of the story in the book that is to do with the crime.
The story is set in the poor farming community in the Adirondack mountains and the central character, Mattie is about seventeen. Her mother has died of cancer and her father is struggling to cope with his poor farm and bringing up four daughters, his only son has left home after a major row with the father.
Mattie is also struggling to cope with little money, few provisions and squabbling siblings. She is very bright and writes brilliant stories which she is encouraged to take further by her teacher. Her father she knows will not allow her to fulfil her ambition and go to New York to college as he needs her back with him to help run the farm.
Mattie has a good friend in Weaver who is equally bright and very able at mathematics as well as literature. His mother has escaped from the south where blacks are considered inferior and has worked herself really hard saving money so that Weaver can go to New York to college and study to be a lawyer. Mattie and Weaver study together and both are being helped by extra coaching from their teacher. They play a game of choosing a word from the dictionary each day and 'duel' with the word saying similes for that word until one cannot say a word - that person has then lost the word duel. The chapter titles are words from the dictionary chosen by Mattie and this is a theme throughout the book.
The neighbouring farm to Matties is owned by a really poor family, a mother of several grubby half starved children who turn up at Mattie's house for food almost daily. The next farm over is an efficient farm as the family have sons who all work and contribute to the farm. This farm is the Loomis farm and the second eldest son takes a shine to Mattie and they are soon 'Sparking' which is their word for 'dating' it seems.
The story flits backwards and forwards a bit but not majorly so and it starts with the drowning and finding the body of the young girl in the lake. The search is still on for her companion, a young man who they think is called Carl Grahm as that is the name he registered under at the hotel but Mattie hears the young girl, Grace calling him Chester during the meal they share while Mattie waits on the tables at the hotel. Before they leave for their boat ride Grace gives Mattie a bundle of letters and tells her to burn them. Needless to say she doesn't do this straight away then her curiosity gets the better of her, she reads them and discovers that there is more to the drowning than it appears.
Mattie is working at the hotel to help her father pay for a new mule as their old mule has died. Weaver is also working there to save for his college fees and train fare. There are other young people working at the hotel and the two of them interact with them in many different situations. One quite funny story is when one dirty old guest flashes the young waitresses when they serve him at the table. They plan an act of revenge and achieve his total humiliation without their fathers needing to find out what he has been doing. Typical of the time and type of community the girls dare not mention it as they feel people would say they asked for that sort of attention and they would get into trouble!
So the story is really about a poor farming community and their lives and how they interact with each other I loved the words like 'sparking' which come into the story and these contrast with the words like 'monochromatic' that Mattie finds in her dictionary for her words of the day and has to use in as many sentences as she can and find similes for it too if duelling with Weaver.
Mattie and Weaver's teacher turns out to be a bit of an author and has a secret of her own which they find out later in the story. There is a reason that she is so keen to encourage Mattie in her reading and writing of her poems and compositions.
Mattie is going through a time of major decisions in her life. She is just seventeen and has no mother. She is very torn between her dream of going to New York to college and becoming a writer, her responsibilities to her family and the excitement of a rather eligible young man 'sparking' with her. Her mental torment of which path to follow merges with her reading of the dead victim of drowning and in some ways their stories are similar and yet very different.
I found this book to be very well written, almost poetic at times. It would make a very lovely film with the right director as the scenery and images would really lend themselves to that genre. I haven't heard of the author previously but will certainly keep an eye out for any other books she has written, this one gives no information about her or any other work.
Mattie not only works in the hotel but prior to this she was helping her father cope with the farm and the children and also cleaning for her aunt, her mother's sister who is a snobby, nosy parker with a fine collection of china and money that could help her family but she chooses not to for reasons of her own.
The characters are vivid and alive. Even those like Mattie's father who appear to be hard and cruel have a story that makes the reader warm to them. Mattie is of course the central character but she touché so many other lives within the story that we get a very good feel for the entire community and how they live and interact. Mattie's father's brother, a logging river man returns for a couple of days and his arrival changes their father into a warmer character briefly and you see why he has become the hard person he appears. Uncle Fifty brings a breath of fresh air and an element of fun and happiness to the family.
There are ups and downs, trials and heartbreak, terrible deaths, parties, fights, racial attacks and so much more. The book lifts you up then makes you cry, the changes are constant and there is never a time when the story drags or you feel you can put the book down. I read this in a day while travelling and really felt that I had become a part of the community or at least an onlooker.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAID
"This is a wonderfully rich, involving and beautifully written book." Guardian
"If George Clooney had walked into the room I would have told him to come back later when I had finished." Sunday Telegraph
"A breathtakingly good novel." Daily Mail
At the end of the book the author tells a bit more about the actual murder of the girl Grace Brown and what actually happened. She explains that there were letters found in Grace's things and that the letters from Grace were then found in the home of the man she was with, the murderer. This is not giving anything away from the story as really it has no effect on the story and is incidental to the plot, you could read this part first and not lose anything of the story told in the book.
I really enjoyed this and do hope the author has written more books. She has a gentleness of touch and a lovely way of letting the characters come to life. This is a really well written and moving book and I would heartily recommend it.
Thanks for reading. This review may be published on other sites under my same user name.
Mattie is the eldest of four girls, and the second eldest of five siblings. But following her mothers death and her brothers sudden departure, she is left in charge of the household. Holding onto dreams of going to college in New York and writing for a living, something encouraged by a teacher Mattie looks up to dearly, she finds her dreams being crushed by a range of circumstances. When her father lets her work for the summer at a local hotel to help make some money for the family and the body of a woman is found at the lake by the hotel everything is up in arms. But more so for Mattie; who holds the secret letters of the woman. But what will Mattie find in these letters, and how will it change her?
I've heard good things about Jennifer Donnelly, so when the opportunity came to read and review A Gathering Light came I hopped on to it straight away! The gold embossed design on the front of the book told me it had won the Carnegie Medal in 2003 and after reading it I can fully understand why.
The story is powerful, so powerful there were parts that blew my mind. I felt so involved in this story that it was hard to put down. Mattie has the secret letters of the drowned girl and the story combines Mattie's reading of the letters following the discovery of her body with the events leading up to Mattie being at the hotel. I loved seeing the back story in such an amazing way... it wasn't reflected on but it was a full blown flashback with everything happening in present tense. I loved the way everything was revealed and the way it moved quite seamlessly through the events, even though they weren't in a standard order. I loved that the flashbacks were separated with Matties "word of the day" as the chapter title but the events happening in the "present day" had no chapter headings. That made it flow really well.
I think A Gathering Light was the most authentic historical fiction I've read for a while. The characters felt more realistic that any others Ive read lately and even though I have read some awesome historical books lately. I really felt transported into early 1900's America with this book and although I found some of the terminology used very strange I still loved it. The world is a million times different than what I grew up in and I found myself getting annoyed at the way women and black people were treated. It made me realise too just how little time had passed since there were more equal opportunities. I got so annoyed at any mention of sexism and racism, which is quite a bit in this era and setting as you can imagine.
The characters were some of the best Ive ever met. You felt for Mattie and her sisters, you wanted to be friends with Weaver and Minnie and I personally wanted to tell the Loomis boys to bugger off. They were all so real that I could picture them in my mind. There were times when I wanted to shake Mattie and ask what she thought she was doing but I think in her mind she knew that everything wasn't right, no matter how many times she tried to convince herself they were. Weaver was amazing and I honestly found myself willing him and Mattie to get together! They were made for each other in my eyes, and when Mattie started dating Royal... I was made, he wasn't mean or awful or anything but I did not like that character!
Although I loved this book I did think it was a little predictable. I knew almost everything that was going to happen quite a while before it did and I knew the ending as soon as I started reading pretty much. There were events that made everything happen that I didn't see coming but I knew the outcome of the story. Saying this, the beautiful writing and setting mixed with the fascinating characters and both traumatising and hilarious events made me need to carry on reading. I got so involved in the story and I could honestly read Donnelly's writing for days on end and not get bored! It also helped knowing that the mystery surrounding the body was actually based on a real life murder trial in the area in 1906.
The use of words and their meanings and importance really got to me through this book. I loved that Mattie was so passionate about words as I am too, not to that extreme though! I think I may start using Mattie's idea of "word a day" it sounds like lots of fun!
The Gathering Light is a powerful story which explores aspects of the past so well that I found myself forgetting I was actually in the 21st century, rather than the very early 20th! I loved nearly everything about this book and it has got me excited to discover more from Jennifer Donnelly! I would really recommend her work to anyone who likes gripping coming of age stories and historical fiction.
I picked up this novel a couple of years a go and it's always one that I re-read on a regular basis as it's a gripping story no matter how many times you read it.
The plot focuses on Mattie, a sixteen year old girl who's a very talented writer and a farm girl. The story switches between her life as a sixteen year old and her life later on when she's working in up-state New York and discovers a murder on Big Moose Lake.
This is definitely one of my favourite books. It's marketed as a young adult novel but it will appeal to older readers as well. As a result of it's intended readership it makes the novel easy to read and easy to get through.
The switch between the time differences is flawless. You don't feel as though you're being left behind when you're switching between sixteen year old Mattie, and Mattie who's working at the summer lodge.
The friendships in the book are a driving force of it's likeability. They are funny and touching and add a nice touch to the book and help shape Mattie into the character that she is.
The novel deals with familiar themes that can be found in other young adult books, such as coming of age - by including this though Donnelly is able to show the progress of her heroine in a more believable way.
I like the style of this book, by having the words spoken from Mattie herself it pulls the reader directly into the story and allows for a greater insight. It also shows some historical context not only in the murder, which was based on true events, but about the racial oppresion that was occuring in the U.S. at the time which adds an added element to the book which isn't usually found in modern young adult books but it does give an added element of accuracy.
I think this book will appeal to readers aged twelve and up, it'll be a good book for parents to read to children perhaps of younger ages, but it might be more appealing to girls than boys.
So if you see this book on your travells, definitely give it a go as you won't be disappointed.
NOTE: In the US the book is known as the Northern Light.
A fantastic piece of writing that I enjoyed immensely. The blurb talks about it being based on a real murder at the turn of the century - this is at the start of the 1900s. The person murdered is a young girl who is read about by Mattie through her letters. Mattie wants to become a writer and is great friends with Weaver who is an academic like herself. Naturally her teacher becomes her greatest influence and Mattie would do anything to be able to read more material and write. Or would she? Her life is mapped out for her already - live in the neighbourhood, acquire a husband and children and in the meantime continue to look after her own family.
I enjoyed reading about Mattie's life and the decisions she made. The reader always feels involved, almost as if Mattie has consulted you. I loved her teacher and I really felt for her later on in the novel; there was something about Donnelly's writing style that evoked real emotions concerning the teacher, Miss Wilcox. Mattie's determination is fabulous, I could see her every morning taking down the big dictionary that had belonged to her mother and choosing the word for the day. The letters Mattie reads have a powerful effect on her, and on the reader. We learn a lot more about Mattie through these letters. The lives of the murdered girl and Mattie become entwined and when Mattie learns about how she has drowned it is only then that she makes her final decision.
I would not be able to do justice in a review to the quality of writing. I actually sat for four hours to read this book as I genuinely did not want to put it down and miss a minute. I could just have easily started straight again from the beginning and found other clues as to paths Mattie could have taken. I thought the relationship with her friend Weaver was beautifully written and the heartache he goes through is shared by her. She is a wonderful character with many strengths, it would be nice to read a sequel to her life. For those interested in the actual murder that is the basis for the novel, there is information about it at the back, with some notes from the author.
A gathering light Jennifer Donnelley
At the turn of the century, this novel is based in North America, where things are just beginning to become modern. Mattie is the mother hen of her brothers and sisters, due to the fact that she promised her mum while she was on her deathbed. Lawton, her older brother has left her to deal with their younger siblings, Beth, Lou and Abby. Mattie really wants to explore the world and write novels, but with her father wanting her to stay back so that he cant lose another family member, she could end up no-where at the end of it all. Mattie has a coloured best friend named weaver, the only black in the area, whos father died for standing up for himself to the whites of the country, and weaver was the only free born in his family, the rest of his family were either brought up in the slave trade and freed later, or lived and died in the slavery camps. Weaver only moved up to North America because of all the racism elsewhere in America. Weaver is incredibly smart and is even smarter than Mattie. They also have one other best friend named Minnie who is always fed up of them constantly arguing. Minnie is the oldest of the three, being married and pregnant at the start of the story.
This book goes from the past; the above paragraph to the present times; the next paragraph, and in between, you get a little confused in it all, but apart from that, the ending is amazingly entwined together.
The present: a girl, grace from the hotel up the road in which Mattie was working at has drowned in the river, with no sign of her partner, Carl who went out sailing with her. A few days before this had happened however, grace, gave Mattie some letters and told her to burn them. Mattie had wondered why. Mattie got all sorts of weird requests, like butterscotch pudding, then got cross when you brought it to them because now they wanted chocolate but never in Matties whole entire life had she thought that she would get handed a handful of letters and told to burn them. Mattie decided that under the circumstances, she would keep them for the time being just to make sure that grace didnt want the letters back. Now that graces body was found, Mattie had to destroy them quickly before someone found them. Graces boyfriends name was Carl, but all the letters were addressed to Chester. To Mattie, this was an unsolved mystery, just waiting to have a story made of it. She had a choice to destroy them, if she ever found the time to, without being interrupted, or to keep them and see what happens.
With boyfriends, abuse, a family to care for, a stubborn dad and having to grow out of childhood and in to adulthood, this is a moving and wonderful novel to read. The letters make the perfect ending to the story that brings it all together perfectly. Jennifer Donnelly writes this book wonderfully and I thoroughly enjoyed it. At the end of a stressful winters day, I recommend getting into a nice cosy warm bed with a hot chocolate and a good novel, the novel being a gathering light. I recommend this novel to adults; late teenagers and I think this would be a good novel to read for GCSEs or A-levels because of the amount of old English in it. The only thing that I find hard is that you need to be a confident reader to read some of the old English in this book. I have had to re-read some of the sentences in this book to try to understand it.
Comments on the book:
This is a wonderfully rich, involving and beautifully written book. Guardian
A breathtakingly good novel. Daily Mail
If George Clooney had walked into the room I would have told him to come back later when Id finished Sunday Telegraph
This book has also won the Carnegie medal.
Prices, availability and other information:
Amazon: used and new from £0.01 or their price: £5.59
E-bay: from £0.99
Publisher: Bloomsburypbks contact: www.jenniferdonnelly.co.uk
Or even pop down to your local library to borrow it for a while.
Printed in 2003.
Well, my conclusion is that this book is just fabulous, and although hard to read in places, I recommend it highly. I give it nine out of ten for being a wonderful novel, but it missed a mark because I had to go back in some places to re-read a sentence, to be able to get it.
Thanks for reading. Angiexxx