Bright Lights, Small Towns

By Ben Beagle
Daily News Lifestyles Editor
April 1, 2006

Jennifer Donnelly flew home to Brooklyn last Saturday night. The next chapters in her career included a Friday deadline for her next book, and another community reading project that used her novel A Northern Light.
But for readers in Genesee, Wyoming and Orleans counties who made an emotional connection with Mattie Gokey, the 16-year-old heroine of Donnelly’s novel, an epilogue has yet to be written.
Donnelly drew record crowds everywhere she went for “A Tale for Three Counties.” And everywhere, she was asked what happened to Mattie after she boarded the train and left the Adirondacks to pursue her dreams in New York City.
“It’s really thrilling to know they identified with her and are asking about her,” Donnelly said before last Saturday afternoon’s program in Perry.
Still, don’t look for an answer from the author.
“Her future is a question for me as much as it is for you,” she told each audience. “Mattie left me with everybody else standing on that train platform waving good-bye to her.”
Nearly 450 people attended Donnelly’s talks at Genesee Community College and Richmond Memorial Library in Batavia, Lee-Whedon Memorial Library in Medina, and at Perry Elementary/Middle School, a program organized by the Wyoming County libraries.
“It’s really reinvigorating and inspiring,” Donnelly said. “Because when you’re doing your work in a little room all alone except for your imaginary friends, you don’t have this interaction with the readers. To see how they’ve been affected by this book, some of them deeply, is a reminder of why you are writing.”
More stories from Jennifer Donnelly’s visit:
The power of words
Listen to Donnelly speak and you hear Mattie’s voice. Like the heroine of her novel, Donnelly shares Mattie’s passion for words and books. “Both of us share the idea that a great way to spend time is to look through the dictionary,” said Donnelly, who keeps “a big, fat Oxford Dictionary” nearby when writing.
She learned about the immense power of words as a child, listening to family stories about living and working in the mountains, and reading books and taking trips to the library with her mother. Words, she said, could make the old young, the stern laugh, and to the dead, give life.
“Strung into stories, words make magic,” said Donnelly, who acknowledged torturing her family with bad stories and poems. “Years before I knew what narrative, drive and pacing were, I learned to listen to the pauses and hitches and to hear in the silence what it meant to be poor.
“I saw that words could do more than tell a story, they could tell about life.”
Why did you write A Northern Light?
“An obsession with history,” Donnelly said. “To sit down for two years straight and write 400 pages, you need to be inspired by something pretty powerful.”
The inspiration came from the real-life murder of Grace Brown, a young, pregnant girl, by her baby’s father, Chester Gillette, on Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks in 1906.
Donnelly’s family, who immigrated from Ireland, has strong ties to the region. Many family members, including her 96-year-old grandmother, still live in Lewis County, the foothills of the Adirondacks. It was partly for them that she wrote A Northern Light.
“Because my relatives are from that area I wanted to show the effect of this murder on the local population,” she said. “They were a remote population. They were, in a way, so much more innocent than we are today. They didn’t have the media that we have. They didn’t have the nightly news. They didn’t have Star magazine and People magazine and the National Inquirer. So I don’t think they were as exposed to something like the level of brutality that this murder entailed. I think they were very shocked and very sort of grief stricken themselves that this murder had occurred. I wanted to portray that shock on the local population.”
That is also why Donnelly chose to tell the story from the perspective of Mattie Gokey.
“When I was writing I very much had the idea of talking to a young woman of Mattie’s age, and showing her the story and saying it is so important for you to think your own thoughts and determine your own path and make your own decisions in life even if those decisions come with painful consequences,” Donnelly said.
The best part of her job, she said, is hearing from “14-year-old girls saying this story gave me the courage to follow my dreams.”
About those time shifts
A Northern Light opens soon after the discovery of Grace Brown’s body, which is being brought back to the Glenmore hotel where Mattie is part of the summer staff. Shortly, readers are tossed back four months, to an early spring morning where Mattie’s sister is singing loudly and refusing to eat her mush.
The time shifts were part of Donnelly’s original plan for the book.
“I realized I had two stories to tell,” she said. “I needed the immediate impact of Grace’s death on Mattie and her community. But I also needed to tell the story of Mattie’s recent past, the winter and spring and summer leading up to the Glenmore. What her life was like, how she got there, what she’s hoping for. Her own struggles to get to the city and get an education and become a writer.
“If I tried telling the story in a linear fashion, I’d be dumping in these big unwieldy chunks of back story which I thought would slow the reader down,” she said.
And if a reader felt disoriented at first? That was intended, said Donnelly, who wanted to capture “the same feeling that Mattie might have had upon never having been exposed to seeing anything like this and then seeing this dead woman being brought up the walk to the Glenmore.”
“That’s how I hit upon the structure. Most readers like it. Some struggle a little bit with it at first and then it’s ‘I get it. I get it.’ And they motor on.”
Mattie’s word of the day
Each day Mattie tries to learn at least one new word. She and a friend, Weaver, often have word “duels.” And each chapter of A Northern Light begins with a word. Some of these were words that Donnelly had already picked out as chapter headings; others she looked up in her dictionary.
“I think it came just from who she is and the time,” Donnelly said.
This was before Einstein’s theories and psychoanalysis were widely known.
“What way did people have of understanding their lives? Religion would have been one. But Mattie’s not terribly religious. She understands things and explains things through words and books,” Donnelly said. “So it just grew organically out of who she was.
“I don’t always understand where it comes. It kind of gurgles up in this imagination soup. It just sort of comes out of the mist of imagination.”
A hint, please
Readers have used their own imaginations to determine Mattie’s future. Donnelly said that no one ending that she could write would please everyone.
When prodded, she does reveal some hints about Mattie’s future.
“I know she goes to New York. I know she finds work to do, and I know she gets into that college. I know she has already sent the dean a letter, I believe, saying she can’t come, so she has some explaining to do,” Donnelly said. “But I see her getting in there and starting her freshman year, and I’m not quite sure what happens after that.”
Donnelly does have hopes and dreams for Mattie.
“She’s a strong woman,” Donnelly said. “She’ll have obstacles. She’ll take her falls. But she is very strong.”

Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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