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Thursday, Sept. 2, 2004

"A Gathering Light," "The Coldest Day in the Zoo"

"A Gathering Light," Jennifer Donnelly, Bloomsbury; 2004; 383 pp.

"Tell the truth!" It's not just children who get that all the time: Writers do, too. The only difference is that writers don't have to treat the truth too literally, as Jennifer Donnelly shows us in "A Gathering Light."

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Donnelly walks the shadow land between fact and fiction in this turn-of-the-century tale based on a real murder that took place in the Adirondack Mountains of northeast New York State. A young woman called Grace Brown checks into the Hotel Glenmore -- where our protagonist, 16-year-old Mattie Gokey works. Then she is found dead in a lake the next day.

In real life, Grace Brown never met anyone by the name of Mattie, but Donnelly doesn't let that stop her from taking the bare bones of the facts and tacking on some fictional meat. In other words, she chooses not to take the truth that literally. It's called "poetic license," or "creative license," and writers use it all the time to tell their stories.

Donnelly finds scope for fiction within the confines of fact by asking one question: What if? What if Grace Brown had met a girl called Mattie the evening before she died? What if Grace Brown had handed a bunch of letters to Mattie and begged her to burn them? What if Mattie broke that promise and read the letters instead?

As you can see, this "what if" seems innocuous enough, but it is not to be taken lightly. In the hands of a talented writer, it has the power to make things happen. It's as though Donnelly uses her imagination like a shovel and goes digging. Buried in all those "what if" questions, she finds the story of an ordinary farming girl called Mattie and makes us care about what happens to her.

Starting out as a classic whodunit, this quickly develops into an exquisitely told account of a young girl growing up in the Adirondacks and dreaming of getting to New York. All Mattie wants to do is read books and write, but that's an unaffordable luxury in farming country. Here, the harshness of hand-to-mouth living takes over, and as the oldest of four girls, Mattie is bound by a promise she made to her dying mother to look after the family in her stead.

In this meticulously researched novel, Donnelly leaves out no details about life in the early 20th century. In the Adirondacks, poverty is the worst kind of limitation, but there are others. For Mattie's classmate, it's the black color of his skin; for her best friend, it is motherhood; and for her teacher, it is being a woman who wants to live life as freely as a man.

When her first romance creeps up on her, Mattie supposes that there's no other option but to get married and become reconciled to a life of eternal cooking, washing, milking and farming. But then she opens the letters of Grace Brown.

Cleverly, Donnelly draws out an artful parallel between the lives of Grace and Mattie. In Grace's conflicts, Mattie finds resolution for her own dilemmas. It is as though in Grace's dying, she learns to live.

Mattie's teacher (a clear stand-in for the author) tells her that "voice . . . is not just the sound that comes from your throat but the feeling that comes from your words." The voice that emerges from the pages of "A Gathering Light" speaks with great feeling of ordinary, decent human beings struggling to overcome adversity and transform themselves. It is this emotional truth that the author is after. She knows, as any good writer does, that in fiction's final analysis, this is the only kind of truth that counts.

For young adults 15 years and up. Also titled "A Northern Light" in North American editions.

"The Coldest Day in the Zoo," Alan Rusbridger, Puffin Books; 2002; 90 pp.

If you were to dissect a good book and peer inside, what you'd find often enough would be a great -- but simple -- idea at its heart.

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This is Alan Rusbridger's great but simple idea: What would happen on the coldest day in the zoo? The result is a pencil-thin paperback that doesn't waste any words in telling its story.

Here's what happens. On a Friday, right in the middle of the coldest day of the year, the heating breaks down at Melton Meadow Zoo. Worse still, the repairman says he can't get it fixed till Monday. A weekend without heating and a zoo full of animals to keep warm -- that's when the head keeper, Mr. Pickles, takes the fateful decision that every animal should go home for the weekend with its keeper.

Could things possibly get any worse? Of course they could -- why else would we read on? Mr. Pomfrey takes his penguin home to Pumpernickel Lane; Mr. Emblem takes his elephant home to Enderby Drive; and Mrs. Crumble takes her crocodile home to Cross-stitch Crescent (Rusbridger gets some wonderful alliteration going here). The penguin has supper where he shouldn't; the elephant sits where she shouldn't; the crocodile bathes where he shouldn't; and the story is no different for the rhino and the lion.

There are two kinds of humor at work here. First, there's the humor of the situation: of zoo animals running riot in their keepers' homes. The second kind of humor arises from understatement, the author concluding each chapter, as straight-faced as he can, with "All in all, the weekend was not a great success." Everyone knows that what the author really means is that the weekend was a perfect disaster, but it's infinitely funnier when he doesn't come right out and say that.

What we have at the end, in homes across Melton Meadow, is a bed full of fish bones, a flattened car, a man with a crocodile bite on his bottom, a pulverized TV set, and a postwoman who won't be delivering mail for a while. Not to mention some awfully shaken animal keepers who won't fall for Mr. Pickles' bright ideas ever again.

Delightfully illustrated by Ben Cort, and printed in large type that's easy to read, this is a hilarious little book for younger readers. What the author has pulled off is to convert a winning idea into a winning book -- by keeping it simple . . . . and funny.

For children 6 to 8 years.

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