Mattie Gokey is desperate to earn enough money to escape her tiny North Woods town and attend college in New York. Her dream is to be a writer, but in reality she is caring for her younger sisters and helping her father run the family farm. When she goes off to work at a popular summer resort camp to earn money for a new mule, Molly meets a young couple, and Grace, the young lady, gives Mattie a bundle of letters to burn. However, before Mattie gets around to burning the letters, Grace Brown turns up drowned in a boating accident on the lake, and her boyfriend is no where to be found. Reading the letters, Mattie discovers that Grace was murdered. Grace’s story, combined with Mattie’s own blossoming relationship with a local farmboy, make Mattie question whether relationships are harmful to women.
Donnelly’s narrative is complex and nonlinear, shifting seamlessly from Mattie’s life on the farm to her life at the hotel in the wake of Grace Brown’s murder. The parallel narratives of Grace Brown’s doomed relationship, Mattie’s confusing relationship with Royal, and the several other romantic relationships that are scattered through the text are skillfully woven, and the book is beautifully written. I did feel a little bit beat over the head by the “marriage is bad for women!” message of the book. While choosing not to pursue a relationship with Royal is part of Mattie’s journey, and the relationships of Grace Brown, Mattie’s teacher, and other women are illuminating to that journey, the exploration of this theme felt very one-sided.
The book was based on an actual 1906 murder, which was also explored in Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy.