One reason I love reading historical fiction books is that, every once in a while, you get the magical feeling of a character stepping out of her time, reaching out across the pages to whisper her truths in your ear, and the amazing thing is that the two of you could be sisters. It’s like meeting someone at a party who has a completely different background than you but with whom you instantly connect and see eye-to-eye. Only in this case, it feels even more magical because the person with whom you have so much in common is actually a figment of some author’s imagination and you wonder, “How on Earth did she know?? How did she get what is going on in my head right at this moment?”
In Jennifer Donnelly’s YA novel A Northern Light, Mattie Gokey lives on a farm with her father and three sisters in the Adirondack mountains just after the turn of the century. As eldest daughter, she has been responsible for caring for the family and their home since their mother died. Life is hard for Mattie – there is always work to do on the farm, whether it’s milking or plowing or cooking or cleaning. In many ways, though, she is blessed. Her father provides for the family’s physical needs, selling their crops and dairy to new, upscale camps where tourists come to enjoy the rustic environment. The local school teacher has provided nourishment of a different kind, opening Mattie’s eyes to the wonder of books, particularly books that some consider to be dangerous and corruptive. She is blessed, too, because she has gifts enough to write her own poems and stories. Mattie’s talent creates many opportunities for her, opportunities like leaving the hard life of a farmer, getting a college education, and making a living with her pen. Opportunities that frighten her because of what they will cost if she chooses to take them.
Mattie is a thoroughly sympathetic character. She fiercely loves and protects her family and friends, to the point that she feels ready to sacrifice any amount of her own happiness for theirs. And you could see how she might, not just out of selfless love, but also out of a kind of cultural habit. There was, and is even now, an undeniable safety in building one’s life around the familiarity of family and duty. There are several moments in the story – heart-wrenching, dreadful moments – in which Mattie almost gives in to that longing for safety. And even as I wanted to grab her and push her in the opposite direction – “No, Mattie, they’ll keep you from your poetry! You’ll spend your paper money on flour!” – how could I blame her for wanting the safe predictability that she could have in a life spent living on her husband’s farm and raising children?
I grieved for what Mattie was discovering, for what we women all discover. The reality of having options is a cruel one, because the truth is that we must choose one path by turning our back on another. Mattie is so recognizable to me. She could be my friend here in Brooklyn, just another over-educated woman slapped in the face with the realization of all she might have to give up if she is to make good on those dreams she stoked in college.
When I finished the book, I felt grateful and sad. Grateful to be a woman in a time and place in which the choices are just a little better than they were for Mattie. Grateful to be able to carve out time – even if it’s a very little – for my own work and dreams while being able to experience motherhood.
Sad because, as fortunate as I am, I knew just what Mattie meant.
I love this scene in which Mattie visits her friend Minnie, who is struggling with newborn twins and the responsibilities of a household, and realizes why the female writers she admires – Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott – eschew husbands and children.
“Emily Dickinson was a damn sneaky genius.
Holing up in her father’s house, never marrying, becoming a recluse – that had sounded like giving up to me, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed she fought by not fighting. And knowing her poems as I do, I would not put such underhanded behavior past her. Oh, maybe she was lonely at times, and cowed by her pa, but I bet at midnight, when the lights were out and her father was asleep, she went sliding down the banister and swinging from the chandelier. I bet she was just dizzy with freedom.
I have read almost a hundred of Emily’s poems and memorized ten. Miss Wilcox says she wrote nearly eighteen hundred. I looked at my friend Minnie, sleeping still. A year ago she was a girl, like me, and we were in my mamma’s kitchen giggling and fooling and throwing apple peels over our shoulders to see if they’d make the initials of our true loves. I couldn’t even see that girl anymore. She was gone. And I knew in my bones that Emily Dickinson wouldn’t have written even one poem if she’d had two howling babies, a husband bent on jamming another into her, a house to run, a garden to tend, three cows to milk, twenty chickens to feed, and four hired hands to cook for.
I knew then why they didn’t marry. Emily and Jane and Louisa. I knew and it scared me. I also knew what being lonely was and I didn’t want to be lonely my whole life. I didn’t want to give up my words. I didn’t to choose one over the other. Mark Twain didn’t have to. Charles Dickens didn’t. And John Milton didn’t, either, though he might have made life easier for untold generations of schoolkids if he had.”
A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly
Mattie is a girl like any of us, going on hope and faith to make the best decisions she can, trying to be true to herself while honoring her responsibilities. This is just the type of book I’d love to read with my daughter WInnie, or my sister, or my friends. I know lots of women figure out how to balance their passion for life with their desire for family, but I also know that lots of women still feel blind-sided when they realize that doing it all means having very little left over. And, if we want not to be spread quite so thinly, most of us have to make choices. This book is a great story while being a lovely portrait of womanhood. Which, it seems, hasn’t changed since Mattie’s time. At least not quite as much as we’d like to think it has.
This post also appears on my personal blog I’m thinking…