In middle school, my sister Marissa and her friends read A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly. This young adult novel is fiction, but the backdrop is a real murder from 1906.
Grace Brown drowned in Big Moose Lake, New York, at the hand of her boyfriend, Chester Gillette, who found out she was pregnant with his child, a roadblock to his social ambitions.
I remember Marissa and her friends making a film project for their book report on Donnelly’s novel — an overdramatization of Brown’s murder.
I never gave the book another thought until I saw “A Place in the Sun” (1951, starring Shelley Winters, Elizabeth Taylor, and Montgomery Clift), which seemed to be an awful lot like Marissa’s book report.
I discovered that the film is an adaptation of a novel by Theodore Dreiser called An American Tragedy. When I sat down to curate a list of American classics for my American Studies to choose from for their book club projects, Marissa suggested I put this on the list.
My juniors weren’t fans; Dreiser’s prose is laborious, and the novel seems to take a long time to get to the ultimate point. I’m inclined to agree, but I somehow enjoyed reading the book anyway? (This is my problem — I love the act of reading so much, it’s harder for me to dislike a book than it is to like one).
An American Tragedy is about young Clyde Griffiths, a young man from a religiously extreme but impoverished family in Kansas City. He aspires to climb out of poverty and works as a bellhop at an expensive hotel. His career brings him into contact with peers who awaken his social-climbing thirst. His infatuation with the beautiful Hortense Briggs drives him to acquire a better job and life position. A horrible car accident brings Clyde’s ambitions to a halt in Kansas City. He must run away and find himself looking for work in New York. He appeals to his bourgeois uncle, Samuel Griffiths. Samuel owns a shirt factory, and his son, Gilbert, is the heir-apparent. Gilbert and Clyde are natural rivals as Gilbert sniffs out Clyde’s social ambitions immediately. While working at his uncle’s factory, moving up the ladder, Clyde falls for diminutive, sweet Roberta Alden, a young woman making her way in the world to contribute to her family’s rural income. Roberta is clearly in love with Clyde, which flatters him immensely. He convinces her to give up her virtue, which results in a pregnancy (shocking for the time, of course!).
Around the same time, Clyde falls in with the local debutante, Sondra Finchley, whom everyone — including Gilbert — is after. Clyde sees Sondra as the epitome of everything he wants to be, everything he wants to achieve. Of course, Roberta’s pregnancy proves a stumbling block. Panicked about his future with Sondra and reputation and reluctant to marry Roberta, he persuades her to seek an abortion. When the doctor denies her one, Roberta gives Clyde an ultimatum: he must marry her. After a respectable, she will allow him to leave her and the child, but he must marry her t keep her reputation.
Instead, Clyde takes Roberta up to Big Bittern Lake (a fictional setting meant to resemble that of the Adirondacks, where Gillette murdered Brown), planning to murder her under the pretense of marrying her. However, when push comes to shove, he cannot do it, unlike Gillette. Still on edge, however, when Roberta moves towards Clyde, he flinches and strikes her with his camera, and she falls into the lake and sinks from the head injury. He flees the scene, but the law soon discovers him.
The third part of the novel centers around Clyde’s trial and the legal consequences of his social-climbing attempts and neglect of Roberta.
His desire for more – more – that intense desire he had felt in Lycurgus after Sondra came and now this, this! And now even this was ending – this – this – Why, he had scarcely lived at all as yet – and these last two years, so miserably between these crushing walls. And of this life but fourteen, thirteen, twelve, eleven, ten, nine, eight of the filtering and now feverish days left. They were going – going. But life – life how was one to do without that – the beauty of the days – of the sun and rain – of work, love, energy, desire. Oh, he really did not want to die. . . .Would no one ever understand – or give him credit for his human – if all too human and perhaps wrong hungers – yet from which so many others – along with himself suffered?Dreiser 846
Interestingly, Clyde’s ambition and aspirations remind me of Jay Gatsby’s from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The novels explore similar themes such as the American Dream, the destructive powers of wealth and temptation, and class structure.
The English major in me would love to do a comparative paper on these two novels.
The reader in me tells you that Gatsby is the better book since it is more engaging and achieves the same purpose in only nine chapters (compared to An American Tragedy’s 100 chapters).
On the other hand, Donnelly’s A Northern Light is much better, though reading it after reading An American Tragedy was much more interesting than if I hadn’t!
This young-adult novel focuses on Mattie Gokey, a fictional character living in the Adirondacks in the early 1900s. While working at the hotel Gillette took Brown to before he drowned her, Mattie finds herself inevitably sucked into the murder of Grace Brown.
While Mattie’s struggling single father wants Mattie to stay on their farm and manage things in place of her dead mother, marry a nearby farmer to merge land, Mattie dreams of attending college and becoming a writer.
Indeed, Mattie is a talented writer. She looks up a new word every day. Each chapter of A Northern Light hinges on Mattie’s word of the day; of course, each word ties into each chapter’s theme.
Mattie begs to work at the hotel for the summer to earn money for school, but the local, handsome farmer boy soon seeks her hand in marriage. Mattie feels torn between staying on the farm forever and supporting her family or pursuing her dreams and talents at college.
Brown’s murder illuminates for Mattie the path she ought to choose.
This particular novel is engaging and inspiring. It’s popular amongst my students, and I found myself lost in it.
Sometimes I wish there really was such a thing as a happy ending”Donnelly 366
Here we have two fictionalizations of an already sensationalized true crime. I’m fascinated how this murder inspired so much artistic response. What is it about poor Grace Brown and her lover, Chester Gillette, that fascinates us? Why do writers continually use their fates as their source material?
Why isn’t real life like book life? . . . Why aren’t people plain and uncomplicated? Why don’t they do what you expect them to do, like characters in a novel?Donnelly 261-62
I’m still searching for this answer, and it gets me wondering why true crime fascinates the human mind in general. Today, true crime podcasts and documentary shows are wildly popular. Why do these stories fascinate us?
Comment your thoughts below!
Trigger Warnings: abusive relationship; death (murder, drowning); guilt; loss of a loved one (parent); misogyny; pregnancy (abortion); racism; suicidal ideation; toxic relationship