Review: The Great Alone

the great alone

The Great AloneKristen 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.

Review: No Place for Abuse

No Place for Abuse

No Place for Abuse (2nd ed.), Catherine Clark Kroeger & Nancy Nason-Clark. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010.

Summary: Written for Christian communities, this work chronicles the extent of domestic violence and abuse, the presence and factors that contribute to domestic violence in households in our churches, relevant biblical texts that address domestic violence, and steps church leaders can take to address domestic violence in their midst.

Perhaps the most sobering portion of this book is the twenty plus pages that document the extent and prevalence of domestic violence, much of it against women, throughout the world. More sobering yet is that the authors show how domestic violence also occurs in churches, sometimes aided by a cloak of silence and cover-ups rather than constructive pastoral care and congregational leadership that brings this issue to light and makes utterly clear the unacceptability of any form of abuse against men or women among those claiming to be disciples of Jesus.

The authors show how much time pastors engaged in pastoral counseling spend addressing issues of abuse. They also delineate in an early chapter both unhelpful attitudes that allow violence to continue, and steps pastors and leaders can take to become aware, to provide support and shelter, and to educate their congregations including their youth (who need to understand the dangers of abuse in dating).

The authors move beyond description to discuss the biblical texts that make clear that violence against marital partners is unacceptable. They also discuss passages around marriage and divorce that sometimes make it more difficult than it already is for victims of domestic violence to seek help and safety. Often the idolization and idealization of marriage and family pressures victims to remain in dangerous situations, sometimes at the tragic cost of their lives.

There is also frank material about both repentance and forgiveness, the possibility of behavioral change by abusers, and yet a realistic acknowledgement that many abusers continue to abuse. What is most important, it seems to me in this work, is that it doesn’t “heal wounds lightly” and yet addresses how forgiveness (while acknowledging the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation) may be healing for victims. It acknowledges that abusers may need to live with the consequences of broken relationships and submit themselves to accountability in the Christian community.

The concluding chapters summarize the important steps churches can take to address domestic violence and the authors commend the RAVE Project (Religion and Violence E-learning) website ( as a resource both for victims and for churches. The final chapter includes a tour of the site (which still seems to basically be set up on the lines described in the book, although not very mobile-friendly).

In addition to the book serving as a primer for churches who want to counteract domestic violence, the book seeks to bridge the gap between social work and theology on this issue, beginning with the authors, one a seminary professor and the other a sociologist. They argue eloquently that the silence in many churches around these issues needs to be broken:

“Many voices declare that the church has caused men to be violent toward their wives or at least provided fertile soil for men’s mistreatment of power within their families. They argue that since the church is part of the problem, it cannot be part of the solution. Thus when violence against women is being discussed, God’s people are seldom consulted. Since we speak out so infrequently about violence, our collective voice is hardly ever heard on this issue. Generally speaking, leaders in religious organizations and those involved in community pastoral care are rarely invited to participate at the secular consultation table. The silence of our churches and our leaders is often interpreted in the public square as complicity with violent acts.” (p. 19)

It is troubling to me to observe in the time since this book was published that much of the discussion in the church has been around gender roles, and gender and sexual identity while the scourge of violence, mostly against women, continues, accompanied by our silence. It is troubling to me that our loudest and most consistent voices against this evil are not from within but outside the church, because this represents the abandonment of a distinctive mark of Christian communities from the very earliest days of Christianity, where the victims of violence and abandonment were protected, sheltered, cared and advocated for. In calling attention to this book, I hope some church leaders, both in this country and elsewhere, will pick up the book, visit the RAVE Project website, and consider how their congregations might become “no places for abuse.”


The Scandal of Domestic Violence


By Concha Garcia Hernandez [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

I have long been aware of the global prevalence of violence against women but have had my eyes opened to this afresh by No Place for Abuse by Catherine Clark Kroeger and Nancy Nason-Clark. The stark truth is that globally 1 in 3 women will face physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner, or sexual violence from someone who is not their partner (Source: World Health Organization). The statistics are not much better in the U.S., where 1 in 4 women will experience severe violence at the hands of a partner in their lives. A woman is beaten every 9 seconds. (Source: Huffington Post, 30 Shocking Domestic Violence Statistics that Remind us It’s An Epidemic).

The authors of the book are writing particularly for church contexts, where the incidence of domestic violence may be nearly as high, and in some contexts may actually be exacerbated by theological teaching. Since a number of you who follow this blog attend churches fairly regularly, consider the possibility that roughly 25 percent of those present have experienced domestic violence at some time, and that it is likely that someone may be suffering this, possibly in silence, at present. I do consider this a scandal, one where real lives are endangered, where trauma is going unhealed, where oppression is allowed to go unchecked, where wrongdoing is concealed, and because of all this, the church is robbed of spiritual power.

A statement by the authors of this book caught my eye:

“Interviews and focus groups with large numbers of men who have acted abusively, women who have been abused and those friends and clergy who have walked alongside them reveal that when clergy preach a message condemning family violence, discuss abuse in their premarital counseling, offer support, give referral suggestions, provide ongoing encouragement and hold those who act abusively accountable for their actions, the impact is profound.”

This is significant in light of a study by Sojourners cited in a Christianity Today article, that 65 percent of pastors have spoken one or fewer times about domestic and sexual violence and ten percent have never spoken about it. And sometimes church teaching can exacerbate the problem. While there is a divide between egalitarians and complementarians, thoughtful people in both camps would agree categorically in condemning spousal violence. However, teaching that emphasizes the need for husbands to assert their authority and their need to make their wives submit (the latter for which there is no basis in scripture) may encourage forceful means and be used to justify violence (most complementarians would not teach this). Likewise, the way divorce may be taught about in some contexts may lead women to stay in dangerous situations.

It seems that there are some important steps pastors and church leaders can take:

  • One is to educate oneself on the incidence of domestic violence, how lay caregivers can offer support (often other women in a church community can offer significant support), the resources available to refer both the abused and abusers for help, and how to implement plans to make these available to those suffering abuse.
  • The silence around domestic violence must be broken, and done so regularly, communicating the unacceptability of perpetrating violence, that one who is treated violently never deserves that treatment, and communicating avenues for both the abused and abuser to acknowledge what is happening and find help.
  • Offer training for all church staff and Sunday School teachers.
  • Include information and discussion about domestic violence in all pre-marital counselling.
  • Include training in youth programs on dating violence.

As a man, it seems to me that we could do more to talk about the fruit of the Spirit (the virtues that result from the presence of God’s Spirit in the lives of all Christ followers) as virtues equally applicable to men, whatever our cultural ideals of “masculinity.” Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) are qualities commended by a man (Paul) for men and women. Among the requirements the Apostle sets for church leaders is that they are “self controlled…not violent but gentle” (1 Timothy 3:2, 3). Do we uphold people of both gender, and in particular, men who exemplify these qualities, as models for others? Are these the defining qualities of biblical manhood, indeed, biblical personhood?

It saddens me that the reality is that few women apart from very young children anywhere in the world live without the lingering fear and wariness of the possibility of sexual or physical violence against them. It disturbs me that simply because of my gender, I represent a possible threat. It says something of how broken is our fallen world and it staggers me. I honestly don’t know how to change the world in this instance. But I do want to work with others who share my faith commitments to change the church, so that, in the words of the title of the book I’m reading, it is “no place for abuse.” It would be no small thing for the global church to address itself to these matters, and if so, this would surely have ripple effects more widely. And who knows what power of God might be unleashed when our sisters know we are committed to their physical and emotional safety, and to fully respect their humanity and giftedness among us. May it be so!

The Pulitzers as a Window on our World

"Gen pulitzer" by Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Gen pulitzer” by Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Yesterday, the Pulitzer Prize winners were announced. This prize is awarded in twenty-one categories of writing from fiction to explanatory journalism with a $10,000 prize award in each of twenty categories and a gold medal in the public service category. The award was established in 1917 in the will of publisher Joseph Pulitzer and is administered by Columbia University in New York City (information source: Wikipedia).

Reading down the list of Pulitzer awards for this year suggests to me that many of these represent not only examples of great writing but the convergence of great writing with the concerns of our time. Nowhere is that more evident than in the public service gold medal award which went to the relatively small Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina for its series on domestic violence titled “Till Death Do Us Part“. The investigation that led to this series began when reporters for the newspaper noted that South Carolina was number one in the nation for the rate of women dying from incidents of domestic violence. The series is simply a window into the much wider prevalence of domestic violence, chronicled by the statistics in this Huffington Post article.

Other journalism awards illustrate this same idea. The New York Times won the international reporting category for its series of stories on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. I admit it, I accessed these stories along with many others last summer to understand the horror of this outbreak and the belated response of health organizations around the world to it. The Los Angeles Times reporter Diana Marcum won a feature writing prize for the impact of the drought on California’s Central Valley and writer Mary McNamara won a criticism prize for writing on television and culture. The St Louis Post-Dispatch won breaking news photography awards for its coverage of the Ferguson riots following the death of Michael Brown.

all-the-light-we-cannot-see-9781476746586_lgI think this was true of the book awards as well. I believe there is a growing sensitivity of the impact of war on children. Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot Seewon the prize for fiction for his compelling account of two children whose lives are brought together by the devastation of World War II (this is one of my “want to read” books). Doerr’s book was also a National Book Award finalist.

Likewise, the non-fiction prize, The Sixth Extinction argues that there have been five previous catastrophic extinctions that have led to mass extinctions. Elizabeth Kolbert argues that we are in the midst of the sixth such extinction, and the first attributable to the human impact on life on the planet.

The prize for biography went to David Kertzer, whose The Pope and Mussolini explored the complex relationship between the Vatican and “Il Duce”. One cannot help wonder if the fascination with Pope Francis, whose engagements both with political powers in South America and the curia in Rome have caught our attention.

A complete list of prize winners appears on the Pulitzer website. In some way each of the award winners explore the intersection of our highest human aspirations and the rawest realities of the human condition. Whether in heroic resistance to tyranny, courageous medical care in a dangerous epidemic, the capturing in images of the explosive anger over the disparity between our country’s democratic ideals and institutional racism, or the consequences of our technological footprint on the fabric of life, each explores the paradox of our magnificent and flawed nature. Nowhere is this more the case than in the expose of the violence that invades the intimacy of the closest of all human relationships. The window on the world these writers and reporters give us reminds us of the line of good and evil that runs through our lives, the choice between destructive forces and the “better angels of our nature” we face each day, and dare I say, our common need of redemption. Good writing has always done this and I’m glad for the Pulitzer Awards and other prizes that call attention to those who give us both windows on our world and windows into our souls.

Why Isn’t This an Ethical No-Brainer?

There is a group of people who live in fear of violence or violation every day. They are exposed to jokes, gestures, innuendos. In some cultures they can be beaten, assaulted or even killed without legal consequence. They are even accused of “wanting it” or “deserving it.” And this group makes up more than half the world’s population. They are women.

Stop Gender Based Violence

In the last day, I saw a report of a 23 year old woman who as she is dying in her mother’s arms in India is apologizing because she was gang-raped–as if it were her fault. Reports of rape have tripled in Delhi in the past year. Closer to home, someone is sexually assaulted in this country every two minutes and 95 percent of rapists in this country will not go to prison for their offense. Roughly one in four women have survived rape or attempted rape.

In the sexually enlightened EU, things are no better. Twenty-two percent of EU women surveyed report having been assaulted by a partner. In Scandinavian countries according to the same report, the incidence is closer to 50 percent.

Roughly 80% of the victims of human trafficking are women and of those roughly 70% are trafficked into commercial sex industries. There are an estimated 27 million people in some form of involuntary servitude today according to the Polaris Project, from which these statistics come.

I could go on and talk about sexual harassment in the workplace, hookup culture and the dangers women face here or even the sometimes (not always) subtler abuses of women in the religious context where the exercise of their gifts and the expression of their love for God and humanity is limited.

What continues to trouble me as a man is that the vast majority of the perpetrators of these crimes are men. And the question that baffles me is, why are we at war with those who are someone’s mother, someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s wife?  What troubles me is that my wife, my daughter-in-law, my sister, women who are my colleagues have probably not been able to live a single day of their adult lives without this lurking wariness of men.

I’m troubled that I cannot do more. I champion the gifts and skills of the women I work with. I try to model and teach respecting the dignity of the women in our Christian communities with the men I work with. I’ve participated in anti-trafficking efforts. What the pervasiveness and stubborn persistence of this stuff tells me is that human evil goes deep in our souls and as wide as the world.

But I am aware that there is also a community of men who recognize that the following are ethical no-brainers and I hope we will speak up and speak into this culture of violence against women that:

  • Unwanted flirting and propositions and sexual innuendo aren’t cool–they are threatening and in work contexts may be illegal.
  • “No” means “no” and is not a license to use alcohol and drugs to overcome lack of consent. Sex without consent is rape. Period.
  • Violence against a woman is never justified, never deserved.
  • Those in power who abuse women or children must never be protected by our structures, whether those are businesses, churches, or political offices.
  • Real manhood is never proven through domination of women. This only shows how little of a man you are.
  • Real men see women not as parts but as partners–partners not only in marriage, but in the workplace, in public life, in our churches–using our skills and gifts together to seek the up-building of the body of Christ and the body politic.

I don’t know whether we will ever achieve a time where our sisters will be able to live without wariness, which grieves me deeply. I do hope that we might see a movement of men who at least provide moments and glimpses of safety, of care, of affirmation that provide hope for a better day.