Teen Stuff: A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

In the summer of 1906, at a posh resort in the Adirondack mountains in upstate New York, the body of twenty year old Grace Brown was discovered beneath a capsized boat. Her boating companion, Chester Gillette, had mysteriously disappeared. What happened next became transfixed in America's consciousness, as Gillette was put on trial for the murder of his clandestine lover, who was pregnant with his child at the time of death. The trial is famous for its readings of Grace's love letters to Chester, which were then sold in booklet form after the trial. Gillette was convicted of murder despite his persistent pleas of innocence and the fact that the evidence used against him was purely circumstantial. He was executed in the electric chair in 1908.

In Jennifer Donnelly's historical fiction reimagining of these events, A Northern Light, sixteen year old Mattie Gokey is an aspring writer who works at Big Moose Lake lodge, where the murder takes place. She is entrusted by Grace Brown to take her letters and burn them, just before Grace heads out on her doomed canoe trip. In this startlingly realistic narrative, the novel confronts issues of gender, racial, and class prejudice with a detailed backdrop of American life at the turn of the 20th century.

Also check out Theodore Dreiser's classic novel, An American Tragedy, and the brilliant 1951 film, A Place in the Sun, with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, for other renderings of this murderous affair.

Fabulous Fiction First #197

Cathy Marie Buchanan's debut The Day the Falls Stood Still beautifully evokes life around Niagara Falls in the early 20th century, and the beginnings of hydroelectric power.

Set in the waning days of WWI, as a child of privilege, 17 year-old Bess Heath is not prepared for the disgrace and crumblng family finances when her father loses his job. She tries to hold the family together while her sister slips into depression, and her mother withdraws from society. Against her family's wishes, Bess rejects the courtship of a wealthy young man and finds comfort in the love of Tom Cole, a river man with a mysterious connection to the falls.

Based loosely on the history of Niagara river man William "Red" Hill, the narrative incorporates mock newspaper articles and vintage photographs, detailed depictions of domestic life, local lore, and fascinating natural history.

Historical fiction fans who liked Kathleen Cambor's lyrical and imaginative depiction of the lives that were lived, lost, and irreparably changed by the tragedy of the Johnstown (PA) flood in In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden, will find much to like here.

January's Sparrow by Michigan author Patricia Polacco

Join us for a Black History Month program at the Pittsfield Branch on Wednesday, February 24 from 2 - 3 p.m. We will feature Patricia Polacco's new book, January's Sparrow, which tells the story of a slave family's journey through the Underground Railroad from Kentucky to Michigan. Then weave a paper kente cloth using the bright colors of the historical fabrics. This is for children grades K - 5.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #195

While friendship stories are commonplace in women's fiction, one that depicts 4 slave women set in the mid -1850s is still a rarity.

Wench* traces the friendship between Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu at an Ohio resort where Southern men bring their slave women. Over the course of three summers, these women came together to bare their souls, contemplate their future and support each other through sorrows and occasional joy.

First-time novelist Dolen Perkins-Valdez draws on research about the resort that eventually became the first black college Wilberforce University for the setting while she explores the complexities of relationships between these women and their white owners.

"Compelling and unsentimental", "heart-wrenching, intriguing, original and suspenseful, this novel showcases Perkins-Valdez's ability to bring the unfortunate past to life". ~Publishers Weekly. A good readalike for Cane River by Lalita Tademy.

For further reading on women in slavery, we suggest: Ar'n't I a Woman? : Female slaves in the Plantation South by Deborah Gray White and Labor of love, Labor of Sorrow : Black women, work, and the family from slavery to the present by Jacqueline Jones.

* = Starred review

For Lovers of Historical Fiction

Alchemists Daughter

If you are a lover of historical fiction, as I am, and need ideas for great reading, there are three excellent resources readily available.

Behind our Fiction/Media desk, on the first floor of the downtown library, on the wooden reference stand, is the primo reference, Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre. This has excellent reviews, some of them starred, in many sub-genres of the historical novel, including literary, romance, Christian, fantasy and mystery. At 800 pages, there are many years worth of reading here!

In our Research database is an excellent fiction resource called Novelist. This site is worth exploring for the many ways it assists readers in choosing their next great novel. In the historical fiction category, there are 32 bibliographies of suggested reading on such subjects as: Artful Reads, Dear Diary, The Great Depression, Royal Reads, Troubled Times and World War I.

And, finally, check out the website of the Historical Novel Society, which specializes in celebrating everything about historical literature. You can find information on their two magazines, the next historical fiction conference, soon-to-be-published historical novels and, for great annotated lists of preferred reading, look at the editor’s choice reviews here.

Some of my enduring favorites are: Poison by Kathryn Harrison; The Last Jew by Noah Gordon; Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks; and The Alchemist's Daughter by Katharine McMahon.

Booklist's Top 10 First Novels and Fabulous Fiction Firsts #188

Of Booklist's Top 10 First Novels 2009, 5 of them were blogged here. (Dream House, A Fortunate Age, The Invisible Mountain, Miles from Nowhere, and Precious). Quite a number of them are sitting on the shelves. Perhaps you would give them a second glance now.

And I happened to have just finished a 6th on the list - Grace Hammer : A Novel of the Victorian Underworld by Sara Stockbridge – a gripping and captivating debut novel set amidst the squalor of London’s East End where Grace makes a comfortable living managing her brood of pickpockets. Out of the blue, her checkered past is about to catch up with her. A magnificent ruby necklace might spell her doom. “Fast-paced, racy”, with plenty of intrigue, local color and masterfully realized characters.

Clearly, those folks at Booklist know how to pick them! Highly recommended by my good friend Jen Baker who knows her historical thrillers.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #184

Recently picked by Booklist as one of the ten top first novels of the year, Carolina De Robertis's debut novel The Invisible Mountain* is a "deeply intimate exploration of the search for love and authenticity, power and redemption, in the lives of three women, and a penetrating portrait of a small, tenacious nation, Uruguay, shaken in the gales of the twentieth century."

This gripping and lyrical story, at once expansive and lush with detail, begins with Pajarita, a healer with a mysterious second birth, her daughter Eva , a poet who suffered sexual assault as a child, and granddaughter Salome who as a revolutionary endures arrest, torture and imprisonment.

" De Robertis is a skilled storyteller in relating the stories of these stalwart women, but it is her use of language from the precision of poetry to the sensuality of sex that makes this literary debut so exceptional".

Readers of historical fiction from a strong female perspective would also find interesting The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allenda; and the 2004 National Book Award winner The News from Paraguay* by Lily Tuck.

* = Starred Reviews

Remembering the "other" depression

When a parent recently asked for historical fiction for an elementary student, among books that came to mind was Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis. This great novel, set in Michigan during the Great Depression, was chosen by the parent over my other suggestions, "because now that Michigan is in an economic depression again, I'd like for my child to read how it was back then." Good choice.

I <3 this romantic historical novel

I think it was the 70th anniversary of World War II that prompted me to pick up Dream When You’re Feeling Blue, by bestselling novelist Elizabeth Berg. Whatever the reason, the novel leapt into my hands and wouldn’t leave. Extremely entertaining, as it tells the stories of the lives and loves of young Kitty, Louise and Tish Heaney, Irish Catholic sisters in Chicago during the war. Some readers didn't like the final plot twist. I just loved it.


Molokai tells the life story of Rachel Kamala, who was torn from her family at the age of seven and sequestered in the leper colony on the island of Molokai. Native Hawaiians were particularly susceptible, at the time (the story begins in 1891), to the bacterial infection which caused the disfiguring disease and anyone suspected of having it was mercilessly hunted down by bounty hunters and taken away, with great shame brought on the family of its victims. Rachel becomes a part of the community of lepers at all stages of the disease, and the nuns and doctors who volunteered to care for them, who all become a substitute family for the lonely, but spirited, child. She grows to adulthood in this community, finding friendship and love, but losing almost every one of those friends to the disease. It is a beautiful story of her great strength and endurance and her ultimate liberation from the confines of the island and the stigma of being "unclean".

The most famous resident of Molokai was Father Damien, a priest who lived with and cared for lepers on the island for 16 years, eventually succumbing to the disease himself. Damien has been declared a saint by the Catholic church and is due to be canonized this year, on October 11th.

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