Lights burning brightly

‘A Northern Light’ author visit attracts record crowds
March 24, 2006
By Ben Beagle
Daily News Lifestyles Editor

BATAVIA , The lights burned later than usual Thursday night at Richmond Memorial Library, 19 Ross St., where a record crowd listened and watched author Jennifer Donnelly talk about the inspiration and research that led to her novel, A Northern Light.
About 150 people filled the library’s Reading Room, an adjacent alcove and the Gallery Room for Donnelly’s presentation, the second of four she will make as part of the “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project. So many people attended the program, that a closed circuit video system was used for the first time in the Gallery Room for about 20 of those attending.
Following the hour-long talk, the line for the booksigning stretched across the front room of the library to the back of the Reading Room , a distance of some 120 feet or more. The signing lasted nearly an hour.
“I think more and more people are discovering the program,” said Leslie DeLooze, the Richmond librarian who started “Tale” four years ago. “And I think the historical angle, for readers, is as interesting now as it was 100 years ago.”
A Northern Light melds fact and fiction to tell the story of Mattie Gokey, a young woman growing up in the Adirondacks in 1906 who must make some crucial decisions about her future. The real-life murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette, the father of her unborn child, provides an ominous undercurrent through the novel .
“A Tale for Three Counties” has people in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties, reading the same book, discussing it and then talking about it with the author during visits which continue through Saturday.
Today, Donnelly will have lunch with six winners of a book review contest sponsored by The Daily News and give another presentation at 7 tonight at Lee-Whedon Memorial Library, 620 West Ave., Medina.
Her final visit is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday in the Perry Elementary/Middle School Auditorium, 50 Olin Ave., Perry.
Donnelly used a slide show presentation program to share pictures of people, places and other materials , including a receipt from the Glenmore hotel where Mattie worked and letters written by Grace Brown.
The author explained how photographs of landscapes, people and the Glenmore as it appeared a century ago allowed her to capture details that no longer exist. She also gleaned from the images such things as how people worked, wore their hair and what kind of body language they might exhibit.
“I think the technology added to the presentation. You really got a feel for the time period,” said Diana Wyrwa, director of Richmond Library.
Amy Dorman, a Batavia teen-ager, received A Northern Light as a birthday gift months ago and marked the date of the Donnelly’s visit on a family calendar. She attended with her mother, Mary Ann Dorman, and plans to re-read the book.
“It seems more inspirational after hearing the author tell her story,” Amy said. “Before I was not interested so much in history, but now I’m more interested in what really went on.”
Suzanne Long of Bergen, a teacher at Monroe Community College, read the book over Christmas break. She loved it so much, she sent a copy to her mother in New Mexico.
Long’s daughter, Emmaline, read A Northern Light when it was first published three years ago. Now 15, Emmaline said she found it easier to understand and relate to issues in the novel since she is closer to Mattie’s age.
Mattie, who dreams of becoming a writer, must decide between college and responsibilities to her family and her suitor. She is drawn in to the tragedy after reading letters she was given by Grace, who asked that they be destroyed.
And while readers ultimately learn Mattie’s choice, many wonder what happened after events of the novel. Some inquired about a sequel, which Donnelly said is unlikely , “Mattie left me on the platform with everyone else, and I haven’t heard from her since,” the author said , others preferred to create their own future.
“She went on to school and became a successful writer,” suggested Josie Neider of Batavia. “I’m happy with the ending. I want to know that what I think happened (to Mattie) is what does happen.”
Donnelly said fiction and history are her passions.
“I can’t walk by an old house without imagining who lived in it. Or look at old photos without asking all the men and the women in them, ‘Who were you?’, ‘Who loved you?’, ‘What were your dreams?’,” she said.
The slide show explained the four things Donnelly said goes into her work: the inspiration, imagination, research , both the rigorous and thorough pursuit of facts and the airy-fairy, touchy-feely, totally unscholarly intuitive pursuits , and emotion.
“Facts by themselves don’t make for good reading,” she said. “I don’t want to embalm history.”
What she does want to do, she said, is to “make readers feel when they read.”
“More than anything, I want you to feel your own dreams,” she said before reading a passage from the book and taking questions from the audience.
Earlier Thursday, Donnelly gave a similar presentation to a gathering of more than 100 college students and community residents at Genesee Community College.
“As a student, I think I can speak for other students by saying the story of Mattie is most appealing because we’re still living it,” said Katie Ireland, who introduced Donnelly at her GCC visit. “Jennifer’s story allowed people to take a look at their own lives and see it in Mattie’s experiences.”
Many audience members made connections with the book. One woman, originally from the Adirondack region, passed on a thank you from a family member who had read the book and appreciated the depth of Donnelly’s research.
Jennifer Jacobs, who works in a Monroe County library, learned of the “Tale” project from a newspaper article a patron brought to her. “I happened to pick this up on a whim and I read it and loved it. I heard Jennifer was coming and decided to come see her,” Jacobs said.
Carol Foster came to support the “Tale” program. “I felt that the program itself is an excellent program and if people don’t come we’re going to lose the program,” she said.
Foster and her husband both enjoyed the book, but disagreed on the ending.
“My husband and I had an argument over the ending,” she said. “He thought it was great. I wished it had gone on.”
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Daily News Intern Megan Pierson reported from Genesee Community College.

Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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