The Great Alone, Kristen Hannah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018.
Summary: A family moves to the wilderness of Alaska, hopefully for a new start for Ernt Allbright, a former POW in Vietnam, only to discover that in a beautiful and dangerous wilderness, the greatest danger may lay in their own cabin.
Ernt Allbright has inherited a piece of land in wilderness Alaska from a fellow POW who didn’t make it. Ernt did, but he was not the same fun-loving man Cora married when she found herself pregnant with Leonora, “Leni” to everyone who knew her. Ernt is volatile and paranoid, dominated increasingly by survivalist ideas, and unable to hold a job. Today, he would be diagnosed with PTSD. That wasn’t talked about then.
Alaska could be a new beginning. They pile into a VW van, 13 year old Leni with her books, finally arriving into the town of Kaneq on the Kenai peninsula. Almost immediately the town takes them under their wing, teaching them what they must know to survive the beautifully dangerous place they are in. Canning vegetables and fruit, smoking salmon, trying to bag a bull moose. Winter is long, and survival is tough. But it seems like the new beginning could happen except for some disturbing signs. At a town welcome, Ernt immediately hates the town father, Tom Walker. And then the nights get longer, and the moods get darker, and while they learn of the dangers without, the greatest danger is Ernt himself.
Meanwhile, Leni throws herself into the chores, the one room school, and the rugged beauty of this place. After one winter, the town intervenes and compels Ernt to leave each winter to work on the pipeline while Cora and Leni maintain the homestead. The one classmate her age is Matt Walker, Tom’s son. They become friends.
Then one of the Alaska tragedies occurs. Matt and his mother are on a hike over ground they knew. Crossing a frozen river, the ice breaks and Matt’s mother is swept away before his eyes while he can do nothing. He goes away to Fairbanks to stay with his sister, and work through the horrible loss with a counselor. Leni writes him and her letters, his sister’s love, and the counselor’s work brings him through. He returns to Kaneq for his senior year of school, and a friendship blossoms into love.
Dangerous love. Large Marge, the gritty general store owner has taken Leni under her wing, providing her a job, even as the enmity between Ernt and Tom Walker grows. This love is the lighting of a match to a powder keg. The greatest danger may be to Cora, who absorbs the anger and physical abuse of Ernt. The whole town knows, and wants to help, but Cora will not press charges. Leni struggles between how she might endanger her mother, and her longing for Matthew’s love, and an escape to college, from this sick family system. And Matthew, having lost one love, will not let go, a reality that will play out in costly ways.
The book takes us inside spousal abuse, helping us understand why spouses may bear so much abuse and not flee. There is fear, and ugliness, and yet also love, a distorted love that stays and conceals despite the danger. It also captures the rugged beauty that draws people to Alaska, some running away from something, others running to something. But it is more than beauty. The struggle for survival either makes or breaks people. It makes Leni as well as Cora, whose strengths are often hidden even from her in her subordination to Ernt, and yet will emerge.
It’s also a book about the various forms of love, from the twisted love of Ernt and Cora, the love of mother and child, and the love of Matthew and Leni. Even more, it is the love of a town that will not be divided by Ernt’s paranoia, a town that finds quiet, rugged ways to love without violating boundaries, the commonsense love that binds a community together in “the great alone.”
One of the best books I’ve read in recent years was The Nightingale. This is a very different book but joins The Nightingale in that category for me. Hannah’s description of the beautiful and terrible landscape, her memorable characters (I absolutely loved Large Marge–every community needs someone like her), and riveting plot all captured me. We experience it all through the eyes of Leni, her struggle, her wonder, her growing love, and growing awareness of what is not right in her home. As she matures we see her live in the tension of heart-breaking hard and necessary choices, and holding the one she loves, the place she loves in her heart.