Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Mixed Reaction

(Sorry, this will have lots of spoilers.)

Somewhere along the way, A Northern Light and I parted ways. At first, I loved it. The main character, Mattie, reminded me in many ways of my teen self. She loved words and writing, but her day-to-day life made it difficult, if not nearly impossible, to see how she could follow her dreams of studying literature and writing her stories. I liked the dilemma she was facing (and wrote about it in an earlier post). I liked the supporting characters of Weaver and Royal and Miss Willcox and Mattie's family.  I liked the slice-of-life glimpse into early 20th-century upstate New York, where the rich came to vacation in the mountains and the poor made a living by serving them.

But toward the end of the book, Jennifer Donnelly made several choices as a writer that I disagreed with and that left me with a bad taste in my mouth as far as this book is concerned. First, I think the turnaround of Emmie Hubbard was just too darn convenient. Emmie has been a -- well, I don't know what she has been. A victim? Royal's father has definitely been taking advantage of her for years. A prostitute? She's been accepting his "gifts" of the first, freshest milk, etc. for all those years. Whatever she is, she's definitely weak. I think Donnelly wants us to view her as a victim, but I can't see it entirely that way.  But, I digress - her turnaround.  At the end of the book, Weaver's mother has moved in with Emmie and, in the space of a week or so, has completely reformed Emmie, so that she is clean and respectable and able to provide for her children. I don't buy it. For one thing, if Weaver's mother has been living across the road from Emmie all these years (and it came as sort of a surprise to me when that was revealed at the end of the book), and if she's such a good influence, and if everyone in the area knew what was going on with Emmie and Royal's father, and if she thought Emmie was being wronged - then why didn't she do anything about it before???? I think it's because it ties in to something else that bothered me about the book - the way Donnelly wanted us to feel about Royal.

I'll admit I've changed my mind about having Mattie get together with Royal since my previous post. I really don't think they would be compatible. She is attracted to him because he's good-looking and because she thinks he is attracted to her, despite her plain and bookish self. She doesn't really care for him or have anything in common with him and isn't really interested in the things he cares about, so for them to marry would definitely be a mistake.

However, I think Donnelly wants to push all the blame for this failed relationship onto Royal. The reason he wants to marry Mattie is because he sees the opportunity to build a farm "empire." He doesn't love her or care about her interest in books. The two things that eventually make Mattie decide to dump him are that he is going to pay the back taxes on Emmie's land so he can have it (which means Emmie will be homeless) and that he brings Mattie a used cookbook for a birthday present. Although she doesn't say so, I imagine that Donnelly wants us to say, "The nerve of the guy!" and write him off as a jerk. Well, I refuse to do that.

What's wrong with Royal wanting to get Emmie's land? She hasn't been meeting her responsibilities for years, either for paying her taxes or for taking care of her kids (they regularly come to Mattie's family's house to eat). He wants to take the land and make it productive. Then add to that the fact that his father has been having a long-standing affair with Emmie, and Royal sees his chance to get her out of their lives. I totally understand his motivation, and don't see it as being particularly ignoble. Yet Donnelly wants us to see him as selfish and grasping, willing to turn a mother out on the streets. And she even has Weaver's mama step in and straighten Emmie out so Emmie's not a bad mother anymore. I just didn't like that whole bit.

Another thing I didn't like was making Royal into a jerk for giving Mattie the used cookbook for her birthday. When she sees the gift and knows it is a book, she gets her hopes up, only to have them dashed. The way it comes across in the story, that's the worst thing a guy can do - be so insensitive to his girl's feelings and so unaware of her desires. Like the "right" guy for a girl is going to be perfectly in tune with her and understand exactly what she wants. Come on. I bet most women out there have had a gift like the used cookbook. Maybe it's something you open and you think, "Why did he think I would like this??"  Or maybe it is a useful and totally impersonal household appliance. Yet the husband or boyfriend who gave the lame gift has enough other, good qualities that you'll let it pass. At least Royal thought about Mattie enough to remember her birthday.  He should get some points for that, instead of being turned into an insensitive lout. Let's face it - he's not the only problem in that relationship. Mattie didn't care about his dreams, either. She was thinking about Emily Dickinson instead of concentrating while he was talking about a new kind of corn.

As I said earlier, I don't have a problem with Mattie deciding she doesn't want to marry Royal, after all. That's actually a pretty good message for young women - don't marry the first guy who says you're pretty if you know you have nothing in common. What I didn't like was having Royal be villified for being that guy.

Finally, I didn't like having Mattie just leave at the end. All through the book, she's been so concerned about keeping the promise she made to her dying mother; at the end, she doesn't even think about that. She doesn't seem to care at all what will happen to her family, especially to Lou, the sister who seems to me to have some emotional problems following their mother's death.  Mattie's teacher once told her, "You are many things, Mattie Gokey, but selfish is not one of them." I disagree.

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