A Gathering Light (2003)

I am sort of stuck, ignobly, on Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Lantern Bearers. It has been on my night table for months, literally. I want to read it and I must. In the meantime, it’s stopping my blogging progress, but not my Carnegie reading project. With my book group, which meets every three weeks, we have been forging on. We initially selected one book each decade to read, and A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donelly was our selection from the 2000s. I recently wrote an essay about it for one of my MA modules, Researching Children’s Literature.

A Gathering Light won the Carnegie Medal in 2003 and had the distinction of being selected as one of the top 10 best Carnegie winners (the ‘Carnegies of Carnegies’). It is written specifically as a ‘crossover novel,’ i.e. a novel that can be read by children and YAs as well as adults. Interestingly, it has a very broad audience I think – one of my lecturers had read it in her non-university book group and had not even realised that it was a crossover book, she thought it was aimed at adults. With a 16-year-old protagonist, it would appeal to children from about the age of 13 or 14, I think. In some ways, then, you could say that this is an ageless classic.

A Gathering Light is set in the Adirondacks, USA, in 1906. The story takes place against the backdrop of a real-life murder which also inspired An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser and the film ‘A Place in the Sun’ starring Elizabeth Taylor. Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey dreams of attending university and wants to become a writer against her father’s wishes. She takes a summer job at The Glenmore Hotel, where hotel guest Grace Brown (real) entrusts her with the task of burning a bundle of letters (this part of the story is fictional). But when Grace’s body is dragged from the lake, Mattie reads the letters and begins to suspect that the drowning is not accidental at all and that Grace’s ‘fiance’ Chester is responsible. Over the course of the book, the drowned girl’s story interlinks with Mattie’s own, giving Mattie the final push to follow her dreams.

There is much to love in this book. Paradoxically this is first and foremost a book that it pays to reread and those kinds of books are my favourite. In part, this is because the structure of the book is episodic and non-chronological. It spans the period from April to August 1906, and the chapters about Grace’s death are in the present tense while the chapters taking place before Grace’s death are written in the past tense. This structure provides ‘thickness’ and interest to the plot, but it takes a little while to work out what’s going on and then see the significance of all the little bits of the tightly plotted narrative. 

The essay I wrote recently looked at feminism in historical fiction and A Gathering Light was practically a textbook example. Girls and women’s voices are central to the narrative, and the book is, amongst other things, a meditation on the female lives that were lived in a small backwoods community. It is preoccupied with ‘real-life’ in many ways. Mattie continually questions why novels – specifically the classics – are about ‘other lives’ and never about life as she experiences it, living in a small community on the ‘edge of civilisation’. Hers is a modernist project to describe life as she sees it, the good and the bad – very often the lived reality of being a female; having painful periods, giving birth, the endless chores. 

Love, in its many forms, is also a constant presence in the novel. Running through it are the parallel stories of Grace’s love for Chester, expressed through her increasingly desperate letters to him, and the courtship of Mattie and Royal. Where Grace’s love ends in death, Mattie and Royal become engaged, only for Mattie to break it off when she realises that Royal does not love her for who she really is. In the end, she leaves her hometown to go to university to prepare to be an author. This is set in a rich tapestry of substories and relationships, of love, dependence and kinship – a novelistic forefronting of the web of interrelatedness that this community, and we all, exist in.

The novel works through a number of feminist topics as well as themes of race, heritage, and mental illness. And here’s my slight issue with the book; while it is a great novel to write an essay about because it abounds with examples and quotes to illustrate many contemporary concerns, it is almost too much. I get a slight feeling of boxes being ticked: Mental health issues, got a character with that, tick! Romantic love, tick! Postnatal depression? Tick! Child neglect and poverty? Tick! But my biggest bugbear is that racism is portrayed as being completely external to the community. Within the community, the two black characters, Weaver (Mattie’s best friend) and his mum are accepted and supported. Mattie herself says “My skin is so pale you can nearly see through it, and his is as dark as tobacco. There’s more alike than different about Weaver and me, though (…) and inside, he is exactly like me” (p31). Of course, that is both a true and a lovely statement. But, given that this book is set in 1906 and Weaver and his mum have moved to the town following Weaver’s father’s lynching, this seems to me to be both unrealistic and also a bit glib. Unfortunately, I do not think that black people were given this unquestioned support by a white community 115 years ago. We know racism is insidious and pervasive, and I feel that not acknowledging the reality of that, now or then, is to deny the reality of it. My sense of unease is further added to the fact that Weaver and Mattie both get scholarships, Weaver to Columbia and Mattie to Barnard. Again, I actually felt that this was so unrealistic that I looked up how many black men attended Columbia in 1906. According to the website ‘Columbia University and Slavery’ (https://columbiaandslavery.columbia.edu/), a website put together by faculty, students and staff from Columbia, the answer is one: “Not until 1906 did the first black student earn a B. A. from Columbia College. This was Pixley ka Ikasa Seme, of South Africa. He later studied law at Oxford, returned to South Africa, and became a founder of the African National Congres”. So Weaver could, in theory, had enrolled at Columbia, but to do so on a full scholarship would be remarkable indeed and it would be more realistic to make a complete song and dance about it in the novel. Anyway, he doesn’t go (due to the racially motivated attack by strangers), so it’s not that the book is ‘untrue’, just highly unrealistic. 

What is interesting is that this sits in contrast to a very strong insistence on ‘facts’. First, there’s of course, the ‘true story’ of Grace and Chester Gilette which provides a background narrative to the main story. The letters that Mattie reads in the novel are (actually heavily edited) copies of the real letters Grace wrote to Chester Gilette who was tried and executed for her murder. This story has itself inspired many fictional works of art – books, films and plays. Jennifer Donnelly is herself familiar with the area as her grandmother used to work in one of the ‘Camps’, hotels on the lakes, in the 1920s and told her stories from there. There is no doubt that Donelly researched how women and farming communities lived in the area in the period as well as on the hotel camps and the Chester/Grace story. This is specified in an actual bibliography (2 1/2 pages), and both an ‘Acknowledgement’ and an ‘Authors Note’ page details her connection to the story. If she had not displayed her research so overtly I don’t think that I, as a reader, would have questioned the fictional ‘truth’ of what she was creating to the extend I did, for instance on Weaver’s story. In other words, I tend to read historical fiction as fiction with historical facts somewhere on a spectrum between being mere background and providing interesting depth and understanding of a historical situation. Naturally, I still read A Gathering Light as fiction, but because Donelly has declared her sources so overtly, I expect a higher degree of realism and ‘truth’ in the historical setting. Instead, some of the substories suffer from ‘presentism’ (the imposition of the reader’s or writer’s contemporary values, beliefs, or awareness on to a past age), chiefly as I have set out, the substory about Weaver and his mum, but there are other too. Despite her insistence on the ‘facts’ of the research, Jennifer Donelly has taken a few too many liberties with the historical setting and that is why A Gathering Light fails to get full marks from me. 9/10.  

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