The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah is another winner from the author of the bestseller The Nightingale. There are not enough adjectives in the English language to describe the greatness of this novel. It is an adventure story where readers feel they are put in the middle of the Alaskan frontier; it is a relationship story that also confronts abuse and obsession; and it is a love story between a mother/daughter, father/son, and two young adults as well as the land and those who lived on it.
Hannah titled this novel, The Great Alone, because “Alaska is such a wild landscape and the people who live there are rugged, fierce, and individualists. It is what the poet Robert Service called Alaska. The primal essence of the book is survival. The actual day-to-day survival in these incredibly harsh conditions depends on the individual who needs to be tough. It is a remote geographical area from the Continental US. 80% of Alaska still has no roads at all. In the winter rivers become the highways and in the summer, it is difficult to get around.”
The plot begins with the Allbright family moving to Alaska after a Vietnam buddy willed them a cabin by the Kenai River. The daughter Leni hopes that this new start will lead to a better future for her family since her father can never keep a job. At first, Alaska seems to be the answer to their prayers. In a wild, remote corner of the state, they find a fiercely independent community of strong men and even stronger women. The generosity of the locals makes up for the Allbrights’ lack of preparation and dwindling resources. Through the Allbright’s story readers will encounter the rugged Alaskan landscape and the different relationship dynamics that will form amongst the characters.
It is also the story of how seven characters must not only fight nature, but help those fight their own demons. Ernt Allbright is a Vietnam POW who has returned home with PTSD, suffering sleepless nights, flashbacks, nightmares and a volatile behavior. His wife Cora is consumed by caring for their daughter. Leni tries to understand her parents and is someone who must grow up way too fast, becoming her mother’s protector from her abusive father. She falls in love with Matthew Walker who wants to show her happiness, loyalty, and security. His father Tom is someone who perceptively realizes that the Alaskan environment must be modernized, and his son should no longer be isolated and enclosed. He has a feud with Ernt and Mad Earl, who team up in their resentments of government, the military, and the Walker family. Representing an Alaskan homesteader is Large Marge, a no-nonsense woman who tries to help the Allbright women see the light.
There are two compelling issues the author delves into, abuse and PTSD. “I wrote Ernt as someone who suffers from PTSD and mental illness that went undiagnosed. My personal take is that he was troubled before he went off to war and became trapped by his own demons. He ultimately evolves into the villain. In the remote isolated cabin, he becomes a threat to his daughter and wife. At the end of the story when Leni finds his medals and the newspaper clip showing his ghostly features after returning home, I hope it is a reminder that there was a time he was not despised.”
Regarding the violence, Ernt has toward his wife, “I wanted to show readers they had a toxic relationship. Cora would do anything for her daughter except leave her husband. She describes the relationship as if he has cancer and is sick. He describes it as similar to heroin. Both are aware of the deep flaw in their love. They represent the dark side of love. A love gone wrong that was probably more of an obsession. On the other hand, Leni and Matthew’s relationship is a dream, romantic, love at first sight where they are meant to be together. A love that overcomes everything and lasts. They both sacrificed for each other.”
But the setting of Alaska is also a character, a place of beauty and danger. Readers discover the state with its summers of constant light, ferocious winters that blankets eighteen hours of night and enormous amounts of snow, as well as the need for each person to protect themselves as they learn to raise vegetables, overcome the isolation and remoteness, and hunt, making sure that nothing goes to waste.
An added bonus is how Hannah intertwines events of the 1970s into this novel. She puts in historical tidbits including Ted Bundy, Patty Hearst, the Munich Olympics, punk rock, and the latest novel of Stephen King. “I wrote in the character Mad Earl as a very bad influence on Ernt. He has resentment against the government. But remember, almost everyone in his family did not go along with his attitude. He was probably the worst person Ernt could have met. Just as throughout the US, in Alaska there are pockets of these ‘Survivalists.’ Through him I was able to show the 1970s was a time of political and social unrest including the Vietnam War that brought such division.”
The Great Alone is a tale of love, despair, and hope within the dangerous frontier. This story takes readers on a journey hunting with Leni, seeing the Alaska landscape, and trying to process how one individual who supposedly loves his family can be so cruel. But it is also an optimistic look at how Leni’s strength grows throughout the book as she turns from naïve adolescent to a grown woman. A word of warning, read it with a tissue box nearby because this story is an emotional roller coaster ride.