A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly
Author: Jennifer Donnelly Website|Twitter
Published: 3 May 2004 (Bloomsbury)
Buy the paperback: Amazon|Waterstone's|BookDepository
Source: Bought for me as a gift
Plot Summary (from Goodreads):
When Mattie is given letters by a guest at the hotel where she has a summer job, she thinks the guest is simply upset. But when the woman is found drowned next day, Mattie must decide whether she will read them, or burn them as requested. A touching funny surprising novel set in 1906 and based on a true story.
A Gathering Light follows Mattie Gokey who grows up with aspirations to do more than work on her father's farm. When she takes on a job in a local hotel she becomes wrapped up in the mystery of a woman who dies tragically on the lake after leaving a series of letters in Mattie's possesion.
It took me a little while to get into A Gathering Light, partly because it darted backwards and forwards in time in a way that wasn't clearly indicated. The book flits between Mattie's time at home on the farm and her time working at the hotel but there was nothing at the beginning of the chapters to suggest the time or place had changed so it took a few paragraphs for me to register the switch sometimes. Aside from that it was a technique I really liked because it made the story even more gripping as I tried to work out how the two parts would fit together. There were also a lot of characters introduced in the beginning who I had to get my head around.
Once I overcame these very small barriers, though, I really began to enjoy the story and those characters, especially Mattie herself who narrates the story. She's a real fighter! Not only does she have to fight her father for the right to go off to work, but she has to battle for the right to gain an education. Mattie is obviously very bright and loves to read (I always adore characters who are passionate about books!) and dreams of being a writer. It was so easy to root for her when she was facing such obstacles.
I really liked the way the book was written. The use of local accent and dialect in the way the characters spoke really brought them to life and allowed me to get lost in their world. The book also used Mattie's habit of finding a world of the day from the dictionary and integrated it into the book, with each chapter titles with her particular word of the day. I can be quite sceptical of characters who read the dictionary because I can't help but think it's a way for the author to add in fancy words they couldn't otherwise use in context, but in the case it worked because Mattie is so passionate about learning and reading.
A Gathering Light covers a lot of social issues including poverty and the racism suffered by Mattie's friend Weaver (who was actually one of my favourite characters!). It also highlighted the attitudes towards women at the time. I thought the relationship between Mattie and her female teacher - a writer whose books have been banned because and scrutinised because for their content - was one of my highlights of the book, and that was a really interesting insight into Mattie's place in the world as a woman. The romance element of A Gathering Light also raised a few issues with Mattie having to weigh up her true feelings from what was expected by her from society.
What's even more impressive about A Gathering Light is that it's based on real events, and the author's note at the back of the book shows just how well researched the book is, even if parts of the story are fictionalised. I really liked the mystery of the letters left in Mattie's possesion which are the real life basis to the story. Like Mattie, I longed to know what happened.
This isn't usually the type of thing I'd choose to read and I probably would never have come across it or thought to read it if it hadn't been given to me. I don't read a lot of historical but it's definitely a genre I'm interested in reading more of. A Gathering Light definitely persuaded me of that! I ended up really falling for the story and the setting, as well as the time the book takes place. It was my mum who bought me this book after she read and enjoyed it with her book group, and I think the fact we both liked it sums up the wide appeal of this novel. It should appeal to fans of YA with the focus being on Mattie, a teenager herself, as well as appealing to wider readers because of the beautiful nature of the writing.
Once I settled into this book I absolutely fell in love with it. I'd highly recommend it to those, who like me, maybe steer clear of historical novels, because A Gathering Light was a revelation and a delight, and a book I believe can cross generations. It's one I'll be recommending for years to come.
What to read next: Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly
Books like this: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee