The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

Review published on July 14, 2018.

Ernt Allbright served in the Vietnam War and became a POW; when he comes home to his wife Cora and daughter Leni he is a changed man. Unable to settle back into civilian life he starts drinking heavily, becoming increasingly volatile and violent. He loses job after job, moving his family around in search of the perfect new start which will solve all his problems. Bright, book-loving Leni is moved from school to school, unable to make friends, to feel that she belongs anywhere or, as she watches her parents’ relationship become increasingly turbulent and violent, to feel any sense of physical or emotional security. She feels very protective of her mother, describing how they each take turns in being strong, but she also mourns for the loving, caring father she remembers from before he went off to war.

When Ernt discovers that he has inherited a cabin and some land in Alaska from an old army buddy, he convinces his family that this will be the new start they all need. Although both Cora and thirteen-year-old Leni have some anxieties, they are swept along by Ernt’s enthusiasm; Cora because she is always ready to submit to her husband’s will, Leni because she is desperate to find a place where she can settle, find friends and go to school regularly. They arrive during the long, sunny days of the Alaskan summer, only to discover that the cabin which is to be their new home has no running water or electricity and is more of an abandoned shack, decorated inside with dozens of bleached-white animal skulls, than a habitable cabin. However, they also discover that they are welcomed into a fiercely independent community, surrounded by neighbours who are prepared to do all they can to help them prepare for the coming winter. As they have no idea about just how self-sufficient they will need to become, they need to accept all the help they can get if they are to survive beyond their first winter. Their optimism and enthusiasm is maintained until the days of endless sunshine give way to days of endless dark, when Ernt’s paranoia and violence erupt with increasing regularity, leading to both Cora and Leni becoming ever fearful of his unpredictable moods.

This compelling story starts in 1974 when Leni is thirteen. It is told primarily through her eyes as she passes her teenage years in a truly remote corner of Alaska, where people must learn to be self-sufficient because contact with the “outside” world is virtually non-existent during the long winters. Although the tensions at home are becoming increasingly difficult to manage, her blossoming relationship with Matthew, who is her age and shares her love of reading, especially the magical world of Tolkien’s books, helps her to cope, to imagine a future which will enable her to fulfil her potential. I thought that Kristin Hannah managed to effectively capture the combination of innocence and wisdom beyond her years of her main character. From the very start of the book, I found myself drawn into the horrors of what Lina was facing as she tried to protect her mother, and herself, from the dysfunctional and increasingly toxic co-dependence of Cora’s relationship with Ernt. The author’s portrayal of Leni’s sense of helplessness and incomprehension as she watched her mother being ever ready to make excuses for Ernt’s behaviour, along with her assertions that she would always forgive him because she still loved him, made me empathise with Leni’s struggle in a very powerful way and affective way. Her gradual realisation that the greatest danger of life in Alaska didn’t come from any external source but was contained within the family was very well captured.

Although some of the characters were somewhat stereotypical, they were otherwise well-drawn and, as I write this review a couple of weeks after finishing the book, they remain vivid in my memory. They certainly captured the societal norms which were prevalent during the 1970s and the early 80s, when Western society was changing rapidly, especially in terms of attitudes towards women and tolerance of domestic violence. Fears about the Cold War, the threat from the USSR, in addition to what amounted to a visceral distrust of the US government during the period following the Vietnam War, all contributed to the veracity of some of the events portrayed in the story, which could otherwise have seemed incredible.

The stark, dramatic and ever-changing beauty of Alaska was evocatively described and so it came as no surprise to discover that the authenticity of these descriptions had its roots in the author’s personal experiences of living in that State. The era the book is set in captures a more “primitive” Alaska than the one we know today, before the advent of easy travel to the region, of lucrative tourism and the region becoming a cruise ship destination. It also captures a time when a pioneering spirit remained a prerequisite for living there. I found that the author’s descriptions of an unforgiving landscape and climate really added an important depth to the, at times, almost unbearable tension of story-telling.

The title of the book is taken from The Shooting of Dan McGrew, written in 1907 by Robert Service – “Were you ever out in The Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear, And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear?” As there were moments when I felt as though I was experiencing some of what he was describing, I think the title choice is a very apt one!

I must admit that there were moments during the book when, had I allowed myself to reflect for too long on some of the plot development, I might have felt a need to suspend disbelief at some of the all too convenient coincidences which moved the story along and, particularly, of how these influenced developments in the later stages of the story. However, my involvement with the characters, the convincing psychological portrayal of dysfunctional relationships, a recognition of the very human need for a belief in a better future and the wonderful portrayal of Alaska, almost as a character in itself, were all factors which enabled me to overlook these and to immerse myself in a story which was, ultimately, full of hope and optimism. I have struggled a bit with my rating but the fact that it remains so vivid in my mind has persuaded me to give it five stars – although four and a half would probably be a more accurate reflection of what I think it deserves!

I do think that this book would be an excellent choice for reading groups because of the wide range of themes which it encompasses – toxic, dysfunctional relationships which rely for survival on a “neurotic-fit”; different aspects of love (e.g. of a child for its parents, parents for their children, adult love, sexual love etc.); the effects of loss and bereavement; the primal urge for survival; what it takes to be a pioneer; the supportive power of a strong community; forgiveness and redemption – to name just a few!

Linda Hepworth 5/5

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
Macmillan 9781447286028 hbk Feb 2018

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