Recommended by: Bob
In 1906, in a small farming community and summer tourist town, Mattie Gokey dreams of going to New York City to study writing, to share her stories of everyday life with the rest of the world. But realistically, Mattie knows she's never going to leave North Woods. Her mother has recently died, leaving Mattie and her three sisters alone with their father, who can barely bring in enough money to keep food on the table through the winter. Even if she could get a scholarship to cover her tuition, where would she get the money for lodging, clothes and books? And then there's the fact that handsome Royal Loomis has come courting, and Mattie is feeling a surprising impulse to stay at home and settle down.
Taking a summer job at a big tourist hotel to help out her family and put away a little savings for herself, Mattie is implored one day by guest Grace Brown to burn a bundle of letters. Mattie takes the letters, but keeps them hidden, just in case Grace ever asks for them back. Until Grace's drowned body is pulled from the lake, the apparent victim of a boating accident. The young man she was traveling with is nowhere to be found. Mattie begins reading the letters, hoping for a clue as to who Grace was, and maybe for a little guidance from beyond the grave for who Mattie should be.
Donnelly weaves lots of complicated themes into what is on the surface a basic coming of age story with a bit of mystery. Classism is big, ranging from the rich tourists coming in to land that's been settled by poor farmers, to the poor farmers looking down on those who are even poorer. Sexism is the other big one, and all the myriad ways it rears its ugly head. There's the expected views that women shouldn't be educated, but also ideas about what is appropriate for women to be writing about and how to handle sexual harassment. Mattie's best friend is African-American, and she gives us a first hand look at the ugly realities of racism in a Northern state 40 years after the end of th Civil War. Want more? There's also wonderful questions about decency and obscenity, both in people's actions and in literature through the books Mattie's beloved teacher surreptitiously loans her.
My one irritant in this book is the use of Mattie's dictionary word of the day. On the one hand, it's a fun trope and is used well to indicate when a particular chapter is set (the story goes back and forth between the discovery of Grace's body and the months leading up to Mattie taking the position at the hotel). On the other hand, the bit began to wear thin about halfway through the novel as Mattie often would struggle with how the word did or didn't fit how her day was going. I felt that the idea was well established enough at that point that it could have been left to the reader to figure out how a word did or didn't fit thematically, and only have Mattie mention it when it was an important comment on the story.
Huge thanks to Bob for recommending this to me! Next on my list? Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now, winner of the Printz in 2005 and recommended by Rachel!