One day in 1906, a guest staying at the hotel where Mattie works asks Mattie to burn a stack of letters. Then the young lady goes off boating, turning up twelve hours, dead. Mattie is left with the stack of letters, her promise to burn them, and many questions. Mattie pieces together what happened to the dead woman amidst her own indecision about the future: whether to follow her love of books and writing to Barnard College in New York City or whether to stay in the sleepy upstate New York farm community with her family, the neighbors she’s known all her life, and the boy she’s sweet on.
That boy, Royal, happens to be a royal ass. A pretty ass, and one who pays unprecedented attention to plain Mattie; it’s no mystery why she goes around with him. As an adult-type reading it, I didn’t have much patience for the elevated position Royal gets in Mattie’s indecision. You feel like you’d be betraying your dead mother by leaving your father and sisters to go to college? I still think you should go to college, but I can respect your inner conflict. You like snogging the jerk who doesn’t listen to you, doesn’t respect you, and is really mean to people you care about it? Dump him and go to college. You’ll find someone else to snog. Maybe someone you can have an actual conversation with, hm? Mattie’s desire to be happy with Royal is understandable and realistic, but it’s frustrating.
Despite the frustration, it’s a very good, and enjoyable book. Mattie has a nice balance of spunkiness and nervousness, intelligence and a hint of naivete. and the book is filled with rich detail on early twentieth century Adirondak life, complete with troublesome tourists, cattle disease, hard childbirth, hunger, small-town gossip, racism, and casual domestic violence. At times, Mattie’s earnest complaints that the lives of her neighbors are more interesting than the civil, stiff lives portrayed in Austen and Dickens, and that books don’t tell the truth, become tedious; firstly, we got the point the first time she said it, and secondly, we must agree with her to some extent or we would have picked up a different book. These small faults aside, it’s an absorbing book with a heroine it’s easy to root for, even when she’s being a bit daft.