This is a quiet, thoughtful book about the struggles of a 16-year-old girl living in upstate NY in the early 1900s. All Mattie wants to do is go to college and be a writer, but with several younger siblings to care for and with the family farm in a shambles after her mother’s death, Mattie can’t figure out how this dream will ever come true.
This was a beautifully written and touching story, yet I almost didn’t finish reading it. The story starts off with a bang–with the discovery of a dead body at a nearby lake–but then suddenly screeches to halt, with Mattie’s life being presented to us one poignant hardship at a time. The story slowly (oh so slowly!) interweaves past and present as we learn about the dead girl and how Mattie came to meet her. But don’t be misled as I was–the early presentation of the dead body made me think the story would have more of a mystery element to it. However, I was disappointed to find that actually the murderer was easily figured out early on (which I suppose can’t be helped since this was a famous historical murder case), and that the girl’s drowning turns into more of a metaphor for Mattie’s life than a whodunit.
I am also getting a little bit bored by stories about kids who decide they want to be writers and thus have exceptional vocabularies. While I can appreciate how an author could have a fondness for children who love words and want to grow up to be writers themselves, I think this is a bit overdone. The author also uses the single-word-as-chapter-title device that I have seen in several other books recently and never liked that much in the first place. In this case, Mattie has a word of the day that she picks at random from her dictionary which (of course!) finds its way into being a central theme for the chapter.
But my own personal pet-peeves aside, the author writes masterfully, presenting a myriad of characters who are each lovingly crafted and highly relatable, and a setting that is so meticulously researched that I almost felt that I had really been to Mattie’s home and had lived everything along with her. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a heart-wrenching yet still uplifting story with a strong feminist message.