Title: The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Genre: Historical (70s), Women’s Fiction
Length: 448 pages
Book Rating: B+
Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley
Unpredictable. Unforgiving. Untamed.
For a family in crisis, the ultimate test of survival.
Ernt Allbright, a former POW, comes home from the Vietnam war a changed and volatile man. When he loses yet another job, he makes an impulsive decision: he will move his family north, to Alaska, where they will live off the grid in America’s last true frontier.
Thirteen-year-old Leni, a girl coming of age in a tumultuous time, caught in the riptide of her parents’ passionate, stormy relationship, dares to hope that a new land will lead to a better future for her family. She is desperate for a place to belong. Her mother, Cora, will do anything and go anywhere for the man she loves, even if means following him into the unknown.
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 long, sunlit days and the generosity of the locals make up for the Allbrights’ lack of preparation and dwindling resources.
But as winter approaches and darkness descends on Alaska, Ernt’s fragile mental state deteriorates and the family begins to fracture. Soon the perils outside pale in comparison to threats from within. In their small cabin, covered in snow, blanketed in eighteen hours of night, Leni and her mother learn the terrible truth: they are on their own. In the wild, there is no one to save them but themselves.
In this unforgettable portrait of human frailty and resilience, Kristin Hannah reveals the indomitable character of the modern American pioneer and the spirit of a vanishing Alaska―a place of incomparable beauty and danger. The Great Alone is a daring, beautiful, stay-up-all-night story about love and loss, the fight for survival, and the wildness that lives in both man and nature.
Set during the tumultuous 1970s, The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah is an incredibly compelling novel about a Vietnam vet who moves his family to the Alaskan bush in an effort conquer his war-related demons.
Thirteen year old Leni Allbright remembers nothing of the father she had before Ernt was drafted during the Vietnam War. Since his return, the family has frequently moved in an effort to outrun their troubles. She and her mother, Cora, are incredibly close and Cora implores her daughter to forgive her father and remember that he was not always like this. When Ernt receives a letter from his war buddy Bo Harlan’s father Earl letting him know Bo wanted him to inherit his land, Ernt once again uproots his family to move to the desolate, yet beautiful Alaskan bush. However, Ernt, Cora and Leni are completely unprepared for the harsh life in an unforgiving, isolated place where one mistake could prove fatal and life revolves around preparing for the upcoming winter. Fortunately for them, their new neighbors in the small town of Kaneq pitch in to help them learn the much needed skills to survive in the bush, but will Ernt find the peace he is desperately seeking?
Leni is a resourceful, intelligent young woman who loves her mother but distrusts her father. She finds it surprisingly easy to adapt to her new life in Alaska and despite the hard work and harsh weather, she loves their new home. Despite the positive changes Leni sees in her father, she has grave misgivings about the effect winter will have on his tenuous stability and volatile behavior. When the long summer days end and the long, dark winter begins, Leni’s fears quickly come to fruition. Her pleas to her mother fall on deaf ears as Cora refuses to give up hoping that Ernt will turn back into the loving husband he was before the Vietnam War took such huge toll on his psyche.
The town of Kaneq is filled with quirky residents who have many different reasons for choosing to eke out a life in such an isolated and unforgiving yet incredibly beautiful and majestic state. Marge Birdsall is a gregarious woman who is larger than life and more than willing to help the Allbrights navigate life in the bush. Tom Walker is from a prosperous family with deep roots in the community and he is the first to help his fellow Alaskans in time of trouble. Tom’s son Matthew and Leni strike a close friendship that withstands heartache and tragedy but Ernt’s animosity for Tom does not bode well for their relationship. The Harlan clan eagerly welcome Ernt and his family into their fold but when Ernt’s paranoia grabs hold, will they continue to support his radical and dangerous ideas?
The Great Alone is a magnificent novel that incorporates true life events into the storyline. The characters are well developed with true to life strengths and human frailties that make them easy to relate to. Narrated for the most part by Leni, her observations are insightful and due to her life experiences, she is very mature. Cora and Ernt are both incredibly frustrating characters but it is Cora that readers will have the most difficult time relating to as she stubbornly puts herself and her daughter into danger with her poor decisions. Never downplaying its dangers or its dramatic beauty, Kristin Hannah brings Alaska vibrantly and realistically to life. As someone who lived in Alaska for a number of years, I can assure readers that she has faithfully and brilliantly highlighted this raw and untamed state in all of its wondrous splendor. I highly recommend this captivating yet bittersweet story of resilience, kindness, joy and sorrow that is heartbreaking yet ultimately, uplifting.