Mattie Gokey: At age 16, Mattie has brown hair, brown eyes, pale skin with freckles, hands rough from farm work, and a small sturdy body. To Mattie, “nothing is more exciting than a book” (Donnelly, 2003, p. 76). She loves reading, and treasures new words as if they were pearls. Her mother has died, and Mattie is keeping her promise to take care of her father and younger sisters. Mattie also enjoys spending time with her friends Weaver, Minnie, and Royal, the boy she has a crush on.
Pa Gokey: Mattie’s 40-year-old father is angry all the time since his wife died. He gave up life as a logger to marry Mattie’s mother and take up dairy farming. Now he delivers the farm’s milk, cream, and butter to the area’s fancy hotels and camps. He’s impatient and occasionally violent with his children. And he’s shy around educated people like Miss Wilcox.
Abby Gokey: Mattie’s introverted 14-year-old sister is the family peacemaker. She never shouts, and her gentle voice soothes Mattie in troubled times. Mattie says Abby is like a beautiful dress “that has been washed and turned wrong side out to dry, with all its color hidden” ( Donnelly, 2003, p. 11). Of all the Gokey girls, Abby is the most like their mother.
Lou Gokey: Mattie’s 11-year-old sister is a fresh-mouthed tomboy hungry for attention. With her coal-black hair, blue eyes, and angry disposition, she takes after her father both physically and emotionally.
Beth Gokey: At age 5, Beth is the youngest Gokey girl. But what she lacks in years she makes up for in volume. She uses her loud voice to tell tall tales and chatter about one topic after another.
Uncle Fifty: Pa’s 36-year-old brother has been away for a year logging along the Saint Lawrence, Ausable, and Saint Regis rivers. He returns like Santa Claus, smiling and bearing wonderful gifts for the whole family. He’s a child at heart — quick to tears and unreliable. His real name is Francois Pierre, but he earned the nickname Fifty Percent because you can believe only half of what he says, perhaps because he enjoys whiskey too much.
Weaver Smith: Mattie’s best friend Weaver is also her fiercest competitor in vocabulary duels. Like Mattie, he loves to read, so much so that he’s been admitted to Columbia University. Determined to change the world, Weaver wants to become a lawyer. But as the first freeborn boy in his family and the only black boy in Eagle Bay, he angrily confronts racism. Weaver is tall and lanky with “skin as dark as tobacco” (Donnelly, 2003, p. 31) and a persistent, scrappy personality that enables him to bend the world to his will.
Aleeta Smith: Known around town as Weaver’s Mama, Aleeta makes ends meet any way she can—taking in washing, raising chickens, selling food to tourists as they arrive on the train. She’s saving her money to send Weaver to college. Like her son, she has a handsome face, with smooth skin and kind, worldly wise eyes.
Minnie Compeau: Another of Mattie’s good friends, Minnie has married young. Clever with a needle and thread, she made her own wedding dress from an aunt’s castoff. Through Minnie’s struggles with childbirth, motherhood, and marriage, Mattie gets a glimpse into the future.
Royal Loomis: Tall with blond hair, amber eyes, broad shoulders, and a warm smile, Royal has caught Mattie’s eye. The second-eldest boy in the Loomis family, Royal lives on a 90-acre farm that adjoins the Gokey property. But while Mattie loves books and reading, Royal says words and stories are a waste of time. He doesn’t know “a poem from a potato” (Donnelly, 2003, p. 267).
Emily Wilcox: The teacher at the Inlet Common School. Miss Wilcox is helping Mattie and Weaver get their high school diplomas so that they can go to college. She had taught at an upper-crust girls academy in New York City, and her fashionable clothes, gold jewelry, and fancy automobile set her apart from the other townspeople. Around town, she’s thought of as a “too-smart woman” (Donnelly, 2003, p. 109) and a “pernicious influence on young minds” (p. 308). As the story evolves, Mattie learns about the risks and consequences of Miss Wilcox’s secret life.
Tommy Hubbard: Mattie’s flea-bitten 12-year-old neighbor comes to the Gokey home for help whenever he’s hungry. The rumor around town is that he and his brothers and sisters have different fathers.
Emmie Hubbard: Tommy’s mother has a reputation for drinking too much and acting crazy. Although she cleans rooms at the hotel and sells her small paintings, she can’t make ends meet. Her children are hungry, her house is cold, and she can’t pay her taxes.
Aunt Josephine: The gossiping, hypochondriacal sister of Mattie’s dead mother, wealthy Aunt Josephine lives in the nicest house in town. With no children, her life revolves around her figurine collection, fancy clothing, and prying into other people’s lives. Mattie cleans her house every Wednesday. Step into Aunt Josephine’s parlor.
Mrs. Hennessey: The cook at the Glenmore, Mrs. Hennessey hears everything, always knows what’s happening, and loves to flirt with the male staff. She rules the kitchen with an iron hand, assigning the worst chores to those who cross her. She probably used the Boston Cooking-School Cookbook by Fannie Farmer.
Henry: Born in Germany, Heinrich, the underchef, started at the Glenmore the same week as Mattie did. He claims to have apprenticed with the finest chefs in Europe, but those jobs involved nothing more than mopping floors and emptying the garbage. That’s why he struggles so at the Glenmore.
Grace Brown: Also known as Billie, Grace Brown is a hotel guest who asks Mattie to burn a packet of letters. She’s a small-boned brunette with a sweet face, gentle eyes, and an attractive figure. Her drowning plunges Mattie into the middle of a mystery.
Carl Grahm: Also known as Chester Gillette, hotel guest Carl Grahm is Grace Brown’s companion at the Glenmore. Mattie finds him handsome, with his dark hair, full lips, and easy smile. But he never looks her in the eye. And after he disappears while boating with Grace, Carl becomes the target of suspicion.