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Children's Literature Reviews
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The dark light
Mette Newth ; translated by Faith Ingwersen.
Contributor biographical information
Publisher description
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
245 p. ; 22 cm.


"First published in 1995"--verso t.p.
While enduring a bleak existence in a hospital for lepers in Norway during the early 1800s, thirteen-year-old Tora tries to find meaning in a life surrounded by death.

Best Books:

Books for You: An Annotated Booklist for Senior High, Fourteenth Edition, 2001 ; National Council of Teachers of English; United States
Horn Book Fanfare, 1998 ; Horn Book; United States
Kirkus Book Review Stars, 1998 ; United States
Recommended Literature: Kindergarten through Grade Twelve, 2002 ; California Department of Education; California
YALSA Best Books for Young Adults, 1999 ; American Library Association; United States
Young Adults' Choices, 2000 ; International Reading Association; United States

Awards, Honors, Prizes:

Parents' Choice Award, 1998 Silver Story Books United States

State and Provincial Reading Lists:

Tayshas High School Reading List, 2000-2001 ; Young Adult; Texas

Reading Measurement Programs:

Accelerated Reader" "
Interest Level Middle Grade" "
Book Level 5.9" "
Accelerated Reader Points 8" "" "

Lexile, MetaMetrics, Inc.
Lexile Measure 770

Reading Counts-Scholastic
Interest Level 6-8
Reading Level 8
Title Point Value 13
Lexile Measure 770


Hazel Rochman (Booklist, June 1 & 15, 1998 (Vol. 94, No. 19 & 20))
Leprosy is the plague that makes 13-year-old Tora an outcast in this moving novel set in early-nineteenth-century Norway. Newth's acclaimed historical novel The Abduction (1989) was also about violent suffering. Here, Tora is left alone at the leper hospital. Outside, among the local townspeople, there is fear, loathing, and fury. Inside the hospital and in her own body, Tora finds the horror of the disease ("faces that were gaping holes," fingerless hands, slashing pain); but she also finds nurturance, and, most astonishingly, she finds a dying friend who teaches her to read and find a world. Then Tora reads aloud to the patients--and while they are enthralled by her stories, they are no longer shut away. The plot moves haltingly, and there may be too much gruesome detail for some readers. What holds you is the honest characterizations of individual people, who are drawn without reverence or sentimentality, especially Sunniva, the rich, snarling woman who becomes Tora's mentor. In Ingwersen's simple, accessible translation, the novel expresses the suffering and the transcendence as Tora finds and becomes friend, mother, sister, and teacher in her outcast community. Category: Older Readers. 1998, Farrar, $17. Gr. 8-12.

Kirkus (Kirkus Reviews, 1998)
From Newth (The Abduction, 1989), a dense, unusual novel about Tora, 13, who is dying of leprosy in a hospital in 19th-century Bergen, Norway. When Tora contracts the horrible disease, she is yanked from her family's farm and sent to spend the remainder of her life at a leper hospital in Bergen. It's a wretched place, where the ill wail in agony from sores and lost limbs, and cry out at night in desperation and hunger. Tora, one of the more able patients, helps tend to others, and in the process, bonds with the most cruel and miserable patient, Mistress Dybendal, who teaches Tora how to read; reading becomes Tora's sole comfort, giving her the courage to accept her condition. The subject matter is uncommonly intriguing, and the writing evocative, although some of the relationships are troubling: A childhood friend and soul mate, Endre, is presented as a major character and then fades away, while Tora's father, hardly a presence at all, plays a vital role at the end. More authentically depicted are Tora's revelations, forgiveness, and innate goodness; many passages are emotionally harrowing, such as the scene when her feet are amputated. Newth's work is compelling, often heartbreaking, and more than once, triumphant. 1998, Farrar Straus & Giroux, $17.00. Starred Review. © 1998 Kirkus Reviews/VNU eMedia, Inc. All rights reserved.

Claire Rosser (KLIATT Review, July 1998 (Vol. 32, No. 4))
This is a novel of true horror, with gruesome details that will astound even the most jaded. Tora, a young woman in Norway in the early 1800s, becomes ill with leprosy and is committed to a hospital for lepers. (In an informative note, the author says that this actual hospital still stands unchanged today, and that leprosy was a common illness in Norway.) Added to the misery of a disease that meant almost certain death was the rejection of lepers by the prevailing Protestant religion, which claimed that lepers were sinful and unclean, being punished for some wickedness they had committed. Tora enters the hospital just as famine strikes as a consequence of the Napoleonic wars; there is little if any food or medical attention provided by the society to the lepers. So we have a sympathetic protagonist, whose body is rotting and putrid, who is rejected by her society as evil, who is starving and ill-treated. At one point in the story, her feet are amputated (without anesthesia of course). This is only one of numerous horrific details of the disease and its treatment. There are some lights in this darkness: the love of a woman who nurses the patients and the devotion of a man who is the pastor, doctor, and the superintendent of the hospital. These two are exceptions in the society at large. Another light is the one Tora receives from another young patient, a woman who teaches Tora to read and to think for herself. Tora turns this new knowledge into a greater light: reading to the other patients who find in the stories some relief from the misery of their own existence. The story ends as Tora's father comes to get her as she is near death, to carry her up the mountain where they can die together, to join the mother who also had leprosy and who had chosen suicide rather than lingering life in the hospital. The last words about Tora, as she goes to her death, are "She had never known such happiness." Dark, dark, dark. But within it is truth about human suffering and endurance. Within it are lights that illuminate the power of love and knowledge. KLIATT Codes: JS--Recommended for junior and senior high school students. 1998 (orig. 1995), Farrar Straus and Giroux, 245p. 97-21484, $17.00. Ages 13 to 18.

Deborah Stevenson (The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, May 1998 (Vol. 51, No. 9))
Thirteen-year-old Tora becomes dead to all the living when she's diagnosed with leprosy, untreatable in early nineteenth-century Norway, and she's consigned to a leper hospital in Bergen essentially to join her kind in rotting to death out of sight of the healthy. The hospital, however, proves to be its own little world, where Tora finds a loving mother figure (Tora's mother had committed suicide when she saw her own leprosy advancing) in the caretaker Martha, people to help in the form of those more crippled by the disease, and a challenge and eventually a beloved and generous friend in the form of Sunniva, a bitter young woman won over by Tora's desire to learn to read. Newth has brilliantly realized a world unthinkable to most of her readers, where savage physical decay is a daily reality, death is a constant consideration and merciful release, and the pure heroism of those who care for the diseased shines true and strong. Tora's growth and maturation offer serious discussion fodder for the question of the meaning of an individual life-and, in light of the novel's ending, which suggests that Tora's return home will enable her, as she wishes, to follow her mother in taking her own life-the meaning of and right to death. R--Recommended. Reviewed from galleys (c) Copyright 1998, The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. 1998, Farrar, [256p], $17.00. Grades 7-12.

Stephanie Koplitz Harty (The Five Owls, January/February 1999 (Vol. 13, No. 3))
This gripping story is thought provoking and life changing. I predict that The Dark Light will be a major award contender. The historical setting of this richly written work serves as a mere backdrop for eternal questions of life, death, and the meaning of salvation. While enduring her bleak existence in St. Jo/rgen's Hospital for lepers in Norway during the early 1880s, thirteen-year-old Tora finds spiritual life and light in a world of physical death. Tora's banishment from home is the only recourse for treating the disease of leprosy at that time. Introduced to other residents, she chooses to care for the one who is most verbally abusive, Sunniva. Those who feel sorry for themselves will feel less so after reading of Tora's disease. This book facilitates empathy and compassion. Visual descriptions of flesh-consuming leprosy are difficult to stomach at first. But as Tora's body decays, her inner soul is revealed and the physical demise of her body becomes less important. Readers won't want her to die and will accept the gruesome amputation of Tora's feet sans anesthesia. Mette Newth juxtaposes images and characters of light and darkness to show that understanding why God has allowed such an awful thing to happen is not important, but that each of us has the opportunity to choose between light and darkness in how we respond to situations around us. The old Granny and Aran the Raven are the dark responses to life. Despicably hateful, these negative characters--the equivalent of evil--force doom, gloom, sorrow and fear upon all whose paths they cross. Tora's mother shows her the choice of light, happiness, and beauty--then takes her own life before leprosy can. The Benefactor, Marthe, and Endres provide a faithful and everlasting glow in Tora's life, regardless of how ravaged by disease she becomes. Sunniva walks the line between hatefulness toward others and an understanding of how the light can be attained. This critical character gives Tora the only thing in life she has ever wanted--the ability to read. Tora, in turn, shares this bit of life and light with the other hospital residents. What begins as a control game between Tora (still free of the evidence of disease) and Sunniva (the wealthy but legless and fingerless daughter of a landowner who has disowned her) turns into an eternal relationship. At Sunniva's death, Faith Ingwersen translates Tora's sorrow from Norwegian into nonidiomatic English--to capture what standard usage cannot. In the scene where The Benefactor wants Tora to accept eternal life, Tora cannot understand this sorrowless existence, for "no matter how deeply she buried her sorrow, it was of course alive anyway!" Edvard Munch's haunting painting of The Sick Child (painted in 1896 and later selected for the cover illustration of this book) is amazingly similar to Ingwersen's description of Tora in The Dark Light. The picture causes one to wonder what life at St. Jo/rgen's might still be like for leprosy patients. A postscript by Professor Ole Didrik LÚrum, Medical Director of St. Jo/rgen's Hospital, educates us to the fact that leprosy is caused by a bacterium that still strikes people today--but that St. Jo/rgen's is unchanged from the way it was over two hundred years ago. Readers might also want to know that according to various accredited medical sites on the Internet, leprosy can now be cured in less than six months with about $200 of antibiotics. The Dark Light by Mette Newth will endure the test of time and trends, as this gem will be read by many, for many years. The dedication "To Hege, in memory of Tore" raises questions. Is there a relationship between Tore and Tora, the main character of the book--and will this historical fiction eventually have a sequel? If so, let's hope that it is equal to this classic. 1998, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 5-1/2 x 8-1/4, 246 pages, $17.00. Ages 12 up.

Delia A. Culberson (VOYA, February 1999 (Vol. 21, No. 6))
Afflicted by (then incurable) leprosy, thirteen-year-old Tora is interned for life in a nearly destitute hospital in Bergen. St. J°rgen's Hospital is a bleak and dingy facility in an impoverished town. Lepers in early nineteenth-century Norway are shunned, feared, and looked upon with disgust, but a few compassionate souls make life more bearable for the unfortunate victims. Friendly night nurse Marthe takes an instant liking to Tora and asks for her help, and Tora discovers great comfort in helping others. Mistress Sunniva Dybendal, a haughty and bad-tempered young woman from a wealthy family, is in the advanced stages of the disease. When Tora takes over her care and gains Dybendal's trust, Tora begs the educated gentlewoman to teach her to read and write. This new skill opens up a wonderful new world for Tora, bringing her great joy even in the midst of incredible privation and squalor. Tora is griefstricken when Dybendal dies, but thanks to the gift of literacy she can bring some happiness to the other residents by reading them marvelous stories. One particularly poignant incident occurs when Tora, on an errand in town, runs into her childhood friend Endre. Endre helps Tora when she is taunted by a crowd and, despite her ravaged looks, tells her he will always love her. While the future does not look good for Tora and she later loses her feet to the terrible disease, she experiences a loving reunion with her formerly cold and aloof father. In less skilled hands, this would be an unrelentingly depressing novel; Newth's sensitive but honest treatment, however, makes this not only an enlightening tale based on historical facts but also a heartwarming story that shines with the redemptive quality of compassion, illustrating the amazing resilience and strength of the human spirit. VOYA CODES: 4Q 2P J S (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; For the YA with a special interest in the subject; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 1998, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 246p., $17.00. Ages 12 to 18.


Christian life--Fiction.
LanguageCall NumberLCCNDewey DecimalISBN/ISSN
English (eng) PZ7.N48665 Dar 1998
97021484 [Fic]
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