A Gathering Light – Jennifer Donnelly

“When Summer comes to the North Woods, time slows down. And some days it stops altogether. The sky, grey and lowering for much of the year, becomes an ocean of blue, so vast and brilliant you can’t help but stop what you are doing – pinning wet sheets to the line maybe, or shucking a bushel of corn on the back steps – to stare up at it.”
Mattie is the eldest of four girls, and the second eldest of five siblings. But following her mothers death and her brothers sudden departure, she is left in charge of the household. Holding onto dreams of going to college in New York and writing for a living, something encouraged by a teacher Mattie looks up to dearly, she finds her dreams being crushed by a range of circumstances. When her father lets her work for the summer at a local hotel to help make some money for the family and the body of a woman is found at the lake by the hotel everything is up in arms. But more so for Mattie; who holds the secret letters of the woman. But what will Mattie find in these letters, and how will it change her?

I’ve heard good things about Jennifer Donnelly, so when the opportunity came to read and review A Gathering Light came I hopped on to it straight away! The gold embossed design on the front of the book told me it had won the Carnegie Medal in 2003 and after reading it I can fully understand why.
The story is powerful, so powerful there were parts that blew my mind. I felt so involved in this story that it was hard to put down. Mattie has the secret letters of the drowned girl and the story combines Mattie’s reading of the letters following the discovery of her body with the events leading up to Mattie being at the hotel. I loved seeing the back story in such an amazing way… it wasn’t reflected on but it was a full blown flashback with everything happening in present tense. I loved the way everything was revealed and the way it moved quite seamlessly through the events, even though they weren’t in a standard order. I loved that the flashbacks were separated with Matties “word of the day” as the chapter title but the events happening in the “present day” had no chapter headings. That made it flow really well.
I think A Gathering Light was the most authentic historical fiction I’ve read for a while. The characters felt more realistic that any others Ive read lately and even though I have read some awesome historical books lately. I really felt transported into early 1900’s America with this book and although I found some of the terminology used very strange I still loved it. The world is a million times different than what I grew up in and I found myself getting annoyed at the way women and black people were treated. It made me realise too just how little time had passed since there were more equal opportunities. I got so annoyed at any mention of sexism and racism, which is quite a bit in this era and setting as you can imagine.
The characters were some of the best Ive ever met. You felt for Mattie and her sisters, you wanted to be friends with Weaver and Minnie and I personally wanted to tell the Loomis boys to bugger off. They were all so real that I could picture them in my mind. There were times when I wanted to shake Mattie and ask what she thought she was doing but I think in her mind she knew that everything wasn’t right, no matter how many times she tried to convince herself they were. Weaver was amazing and I honestly found myself willing him and Mattie to get together! They were made for each other in my eyes, and when Mattie started dating Royal… I was made, he wasn’t mean or awful or anything but I did not like that character!
Although I loved this book I did think it was a little predictable. I knew almost everything that was going to happen quite a while before it did and I knew the ending as soon as I started reading pretty much. There were events that made everything happen that I didn’t see coming but I knew the outcome of the story. Saying this, the beautiful writing and setting mixed with the fascinating characters and both traumatising and hilarious events made me need to carry on reading. I got so involved in the story and I could honestly read Donnelly’s writing for days on end and not get bored! It also helped knowing that the mystery surrounding the body was actually based on a real life murder trial in the area in 1906.
The use of words and their meanings and importance really got to me through this book. I loved that Mattie was so passionate about words as I am too, not to that extreme though! I think I may start using Mattie’s idea of “word a day” it sounds like lots of fun!
The Gathering Light is a powerful story which explores aspects of the past so well that I found myself forgetting I was actually in the 21st century, rather than the very early 20th! I loved nearly everything about this book and it has got me excited to discover more from Jennifer Donnelly! I would really recommend her work to anyone who likes gripping coming of age stories and historical fiction.
A Gathering Light was published in 2003 by Bloomsbury. Jennifer Donnelly’s new book, Revolution is coming out in October and will be reviewed sometime in the next month on my blog. My copy was kindly sent by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


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