Murder in the Mountains – A Northern Light and the True-life Murder that Inspired It


“Gillette Electrocuted for the Murder of Sweetheart.” It is a headline ripped straight from a 1908 newspaper and just as compelling as ever. A recent visit to the Adirondacks reminded me of one of my favorite historical fiction books, A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly and the true-life crime upon which Donnelly’s story revolves.

It has become one of my hometown’s notorious claims to fame. Chester Gillette was the nephew of the wealthy owner of the Gillette Skirt Factory in Cortland, NY. Grace Brown was a worker at the factory who became romantically involved with Gillette and after the affair found herself in a troublesome situation for the time, pregnant and unwed. After pressure from Brown, it appears Gillette thought the easiest way out of his predicament was to take Grace on a “vacation” to Big Moose Lake. When authorities found the couple’s capsized canoe, they believed that both had drowned. It wasn’t until after Gillette checked into a local hotel that they realized the truth behind the capsized canoe. Chester Gillette was tried and convicted for the murder of the pregnant Grace Brown. His sentence, death by execution.

Fast forward a century. Author, Jennifer Donnelly was browsing a bookstore in Old Forge, NY when her mother pointed out the fictionalized story, An American Tragedy. From that she learned of Grace Brown’s letters to Gillette that would become instrumental in his conviction. These letters and the story became the background to her own work of fiction.

Read the award-winning A Northern Light and more murder fiction this summer.


A Northern Light
By: Jennifer Donnelly

Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey has big dreams but little hope of seeing them come true. Desperate for money, she takes a job at the Glenmore, where hotel guest Grace Brown entrusts her with the task of burning a secret bundle of letters. But when Grace’s drowned body is fished from the lake, Mattie discovers that the letters could reveal the grim truth behind a murder. Ages 12 and up

The Diviners
By: Libba Bray

Seventeen-year-old Evie O’Neill is thrilled when she is exiled from small-town Ohio to New York City in 1926, even when a rash of occult-based murders thrusts Evie and her uncle, curator of The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult, into the thick of the investigation. Ages 14 and up

All Unquiet Things
By: Anna Jarzab

After the death of his ex-girlfriend Carly, Northern California high school student Neily joins forces with Carly’s cousin Audrey to try to solve her murder. Ages 13 and up

The Morgue and Me
By: John C. Ford

Eighteen-year-old Christopher, who plans to be a spy, learns of a murder cover-up through his summer job as a morgue assistant and teams up with Tina, a gorgeous newspaper reporter, to investigate, despite great danger. Ages 12 and up

Out of the Easy
By: Ruta Sepetys

Josie, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a French Quarter prostitute, is striving to escape 1950 New Orleans and enroll at prestigious Smith College when she becomes entangled in a murder investigation. Ages 14 and up

The Road of the Dead
By: Kevin Brooks

Two brothers, sons of an incarcerated gypsy, leave London traveling to an isolated and desolate village, in search of the brutal killer of their sister. Ages 13 and up

These Shallow Graves
By: Jennifer Donnelly

A young woman in nineteenth-century New York City must struggle against gender and class boundaries when her father is found dead of a supposed suicide, and she believes there is more than meets the eye, so in order to uncover the truth she will have to decide how much she is willing to risk and lose. Ages 14 and up

The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin
By: Josh Berk

When Will Halpin transfers from his all-deaf school into a mainstream Pennsylvania high school, he faces discrimination and bullying, but still manages to solve a mystery surrounding the death of a popular football player in his class. Ages 12 and up

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly
By: Stephanie Oakes

A handless teen escapes from a cult, only to find herself in juvenile detention and suspected of knowing who murdered her cult leader. Ages 14 and up

Jasper Jones
By: Craig Silvey

In small-town Australia, teens Jasper and Charlie form an unlikely friendship when one asks the other to help him cover up a murder until they can prove who is responsible. Ages 13 and up.


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