By Ben Beagle
Daily News Lifestyles Editor
Before O.J. Before Lindbergh.
Even before Harry Thaw.
There was Chester Gillette. And Grace Brown.
On July 11, 1906, one of the nation’s most famous murders occurred in an idyllic Adirondack mountain setting , a crime that provides the undercurrent through Jennifer Donnelly’s novel, A Northern Light.
The novel, a haunting historical tale with a unique perspective on what may have been the 20th century’s first “trial of the century,” has been chosen for 2006’s “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project.
Donnelly melds the fictional coming-of-age story of Mattie Gokey with the real-life tragedy of Grace Brown who was murdered by Chester Gillette at Big Moose Lake, near Inlet, Herkimer County.
“The New York State setting was a big draw, so was the historical twist,” said Leslie DeLooze, the community service librarian at Richmond Memorial Library, Batavia, who leads the project. “The other thing that makes it extremely readable is the aspect of true-life. She gives such a detailed picture of what life was like 100 years ago in the Adirondacks.”
Author to visit next spring
“A Tale for Three Counties,” organized by libraries in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties, encourages people in those communities to read and then discuss the same book. Libraries will have extra copies of the book for loan and eventually for purchase.
The project culminates next March when Donnelly is scheduled to visit each county.
At least a dozen book discussions at area libraries are being planned for February and March. Genesee Community College will be involved for a second consecutive year with a student-run program and discussions. A book review contest, in which winners have lunch with the author, will also return.
Donnelly’s visits are scheduled March 23 at Genesee Community College, Batavia, and Richmond Memorial Library March 24 in Lee Whedon Memorial Library, Medina, and March 25 in Wyoming County at a location to be announced.
While 2006 marks the 100th anniversary of the murder, that wasn’t a factor in the book’s selection by “Tale” organizers. Donnelly had been considered in previous years, but with motherhood and book deadlines filling her schedule she was unable to participate.
“I think we were prompted, at first, by the terrific reviews, and the New York setting and the people the author has created,” DeLooze said.
Feel you know Mattie
Donnelly’s critically acclaimed work of historical fiction is much more than a crime drama. The novel explores the joy and pangs of teen romance, the dreams of youth, and the harsh reality of marriage, family life and economic survival
“The main character is so life-like you feel you know her,” DeLooze said.
Mattie Gokey, is a 16-year-old trying to decide what to do with her life. She has escaped the responsibility of helping run her father’s broke-down farm , at least for the summer , by accepting a paid summer job at an Adirondack resort.
“While the story is told from the perspective of a female character, there are a lot of strong supporting male characters,” said Mary E. Mann, director of the Gainesville Public Library, Silver Springs. “And there’s a bit of a mystery that keeps you engaged.”
Mattie has been accepted to Barnard College in New York City for the fall, and hopes to use money earned from her summer job for school. But she’s uncertain if she will go. Mattie is held back by a sense of responsibility to her family , she made a promise to her dying mother to care for her three younger sisters , and a budding romance with a local boy. Her father opposes her leaving.
At the hotel, Mattie interacts with real-life characters. She is caught up in the disappearance of a young couple who had gone out together in a rowboat. Mattie spoke with the young woman, Grace Brown, just before the fateful trip, and Grace had given Mattie a packet of love letters and asked her to burn them.
Grace’s death and subsequent murder trial, conviction and execution of her boating companion, Chester Gillette, captivated the nation. Many out-of-town newspapers covered the trial. Donnelly, in an author’s note, says the letters quoted in her novel, were the same ones introduced at Gillette’s trial.
Inspired books, films
While the story of the couple would have most likely faded from public interest, Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel based on the murder, An American Tragedy, brought a new generation of interest to the case, said Jeff Steele, president of the Herkimer County Historical Society, which is planning to commemorate the centennial of the dramatic story.
In addition to several other non-fiction books on the case, the Dreiser novel inspired two movies , a 1931 version and the 1951 adaptation, A Place in the Sun, that starred Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor and won six Oscars.
Acclaim for Donnelly
A Northern Light has won several awards for Donnelly, including the Carnegie Medal, the most prestigious award for children’s writing in Britain where the book’s title is A Gathering Light. “It is a book about hard choices and the power of language to free us from the constraints of every day,” Colin Brabazon, chairman of the panel, said in a statement announcing the award in July 2004.
A Northern Light was named a Michael J. Printz Honor Book by the American Library Association, which also named it a Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults. The book was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Prize in the young adult fiction category, and received best book honors from more than a half-dozen other publications .
While the book’s awards have come in the arena of young adult fiction, Richmond Library director Diana Wyrwa said, the book “has transcended categorization.”
“It’s not really a children’s book,” DeLooze said. “As with any book that is exceptionally well-written, it is also of interest to and enjoyable for older, adult readers.”
American publishers, when a book’s main character is a teen-ager, tend to market books as young adult based on the perspective of the narrator. “If the narrator is immediately in the experience, it’s YA. If they’re telling the story at some remove, it’s not,” Marc Aronson, a young adult specialist, author and editor, said in an interview with Publishers Weekly last month.
“People don’t realize what excellent literature is written for young adults. Even as adult readers it is excellent,” said Peggy Parker, director of the Perry Public Library.
Two previous “Tale” selections have featured the story of teen-agers. Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River and Howard Frank Mosher’s Northern Borders both featured adult narrators recounting their lives as teens.
Donnelly’s first book, The Tea Rose, was published in 2002. The adult romance, set in 19th century New York City and London, is the first in a trilogy. She also wrote the children’s picture book Humble Pie.
Donnelly, a Westchester County native, spent part of her childhood in Port Leyden, in the foothills of the Adirondacks, after her father, a state trooper, was assigned to Northern New York. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.
On the Net:
Jennifer Donnelly Web site: www.jenniferdonnelly.com
Background on the Chester Gillette murder trial: http://www.rootsweb.com/~nyhchs/
Other community reading projects: www.loc.gov/loc/cfbooks/one-book.html
Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation