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In the North Woods

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Jennifer Donnelly has perfect pitch as a writer, which is an enviable talent, especially in a first novel. But then, this is an exceptional novel. I read it six months ago, and in the way of books that seem to breathe a life of their own, it set up house in a corner of my mind. I found myself thinking about the characters from time to time, wondering how they were getting along. I reread it last week, and it’s just as good as I first thought.

It is set in 1906 in New York State’s Adirondacks – a fancy outsiders’ name for their North Woods, as far as the locals are concerned – and Mattie Gorky, the 16-year-old daughter of a riverman-turned-farmer, is working at a local summer hotel. Mattie’s passion is for words and she dreams of attending college in New York City and becoming a writer, but she has promised her dying mother that she will stay home and look after the family. Mattie has also been given some letters by a hotel guest, and promises to burn them. But next day the guest is found drowned in the lake, and Mattie has to think again about her promise.

Mattie knows more than she first realizes of the young woman’s death – more than she wants to acknowledge, for it rubs uncomfortably against aspects of her own life – and it is through her developing understanding of this that she gains the courage to choose her own future. In doing so, she discovers the high price adults often pay for knowledge. She also discovers that promises must sometimes be broken, or, as she says, the promises may break you instead.

The book was conceived and published as a teenage novel, but it is a good example of how the best of that genre can merge seamlessly into adult writing. In today’s terminology this is probably a crossover novel, although its perspective – and thus its true home – is genuinely adolescent. In transition from adolescence (or a version of it, anyway; it’s the early twentieth century in rural America and there’s precious li

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Jennifer Donnelly has perfect pitch as a writer, which is an enviable talent, especially in a first novel. But then, this is an exceptional novel. I read it six months ago, and in the way of books that seem to breathe a life of their own, it set up house in a corner of my mind. I found myself thinking about the characters from time to time, wondering how they were getting along. I reread it last week, and it’s just as good as I first thought.

It is set in 1906 in New York State’s Adirondacks – a fancy outsiders’ name for their North Woods, as far as the locals are concerned – and Mattie Gorky, the 16-year-old daughter of a riverman-turned-farmer, is working at a local summer hotel. Mattie’s passion is for words and she dreams of attending college in New York City and becoming a writer, but she has promised her dying mother that she will stay home and look after the family. Mattie has also been given some letters by a hotel guest, and promises to burn them. But next day the guest is found drowned in the lake, and Mattie has to think again about her promise. Mattie knows more than she first realizes of the young woman’s death – more than she wants to acknowledge, for it rubs uncomfortably against aspects of her own life – and it is through her developing understanding of this that she gains the courage to choose her own future. In doing so, she discovers the high price adults often pay for knowledge. She also discovers that promises must sometimes be broken, or, as she says, the promises may break you instead. The book was conceived and published as a teenage novel, but it is a good example of how the best of that genre can merge seamlessly into adult writing. In today’s terminology this is probably a crossover novel, although its perspective – and thus its true home – is genuinely adolescent. In transition from adolescence (or a version of it, anyway; it’s the early twentieth century in rural America and there’s precious little indulgence on offer to any age group), Mattie’s evolving maturity is drawn with care and sensitivity. But Mattie is poised on the edge of adult life, and it is adult knowledge that tugs at her heart and mind. The issues that shape her story are tough and universal ones, and their resonance extends far beyond adolescent cares. The author uses two alternating narrative threads, both told in Mattie’s voice. The book begins on the day of the young woman’s death and that thread is centred on the hotel, while the other narrative begins earlier in the same year and is centred on Mattie’s home. Each home-based chapter is headed with Mattie’s word of the day (fractious; monochromatic; dehiscence) gleaned at random from her dead mother’s dictionary and used in whatever way Mattie can conjure, if only in a word duel with a friend. But the hotel chapters, in contrast, are unnamed – their results are unpredictable, as are the pivotal decisions of life and the causes of tragedy. This alternating technique is difficult to pull off, for if it falters readers will prefer one strand to the other, and skip forward to follow their choice through the book. Here, however, the trick is perfectly balanced and Donnelly weaves the details of a true murder into her own design, transforming both elements. The writing is underpinned by two particular strengths: an uncanny touch with history and place, and a deft depiction of character. Donnelly establishes domestic detail and the life it encloses with an unerring eye and ear. The unsentimental realities of rural poverty, where children, like crops, have a short growing season ‘and must come up fast if they are to come at all’ have the grit of authenticity, while Mattie’s view of the people in her world is both humorous and unflinching. Donnelly’s characters, pinned down with light, precise strokes , illuminate each page. Mattie’s French Canadian father only speaks French when he’s angry, and his sorrow and guilt at the death of his beloved wife haunt his every action, while Aunt Josie is on to every scrap of gossip ‘like a bear on a brook trout’. Mattie’s 5-year-old sister Beth, with the lungs of a riverman, sings at the top of her voice to fill the empty places in their house. Weaver, Mattie’s best friend and the only black boy in the North Woods, says that freedom from slavery ‘is like Sloan’s Liniment, always promising more than it delivers’. Above all there is Mattie herself, small and plain and fiercely intelligent, who lives in a world where her resolute hope for more than she has is seen as the eighth deadly sin, and where she must try to reconcile her passion for words with the future she is offered. (Even her search for the perfect way to describe Royal Loomis, her gloriously handsome sweetheart, has a young writer’s dogged pursuit of the apt phrase: although her knees go weak at the thought of him, she still tries to decide if his eyes are the colour of buckwheat honey or of warm, dark amber.) Mattie is exactly the sort of heroine I most loved as an adolescent (and for whom I still have a soft spot), with an endearing as well as admirable blend of self-knowledge and self-doubt, and the courage to confront them both. She is as distinctive as Anne of Green Gables, as bold as Jo in Little Women, as witty as Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, and as spirited as Lyra in His Dark Materials. Don’t let the curiously undistinguished title of the book put you off meeting her.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 1 © Belinda Hollyer 2004


About the contributor

Belinda Hollyer has spent most of her working life enjoying some combination of children and books. She has been a teacher, a school librarian and a children’s book publisher, and is now a full-time writer.

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