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.

Memorial Day 2014

I can’t think anyone currently serving in the U.S. military nor a veteran for whom I have less than the greatest respect. My father and uncle were World War 2 veterans and my uncle a career Navy man. My nephew is an Air Force Academy graduate who was just promoted to the rank of Colonel and will shortly move with his family to Okinawa, I believe for the third time. My father was incredibly proud of his service in Europe in a medical evac unit. It meant so much to arrange a veterans salute at his graveside service and the memory of my nephew in his dress uniform saluting him ramrod straight will forever be etched in my mind.

Arlington National Cemetery. Photo is in the public domain.

Arlington National Cemetery. Photo is in the public domain.

My nephew tells me the world is a far more dangerous place than most of us know, and that’s about all he can say about it. Those in our military have always known that, whether the threat is a bullet or bio-terrorism. We can sleep at night because of the vigilance of these people and the risks in which they place themselves to keep us safe, to preserve peace if possible, and to prepare for war if necessary. I am continually amazed at the stories of excellence, of courage, and of heroism that come from the ranks of those who are simply doing their duty to the very best of their ability. It seems so appropriate to pay tribute to those both living and those who have died, for this sacrifice.

It seems this Memorial Day that there are at least two ways beyond the moments of silence, the tributes, and the parades that we can honor these who truly deserve honor.

One is to clean up this mess in the Veterans Administration. In my father’s last years, I helped him secure various benefits he was qualified for as a veteran. What I found is that the people we dealt with were in fact deeply caring individuals who were embedded in a deeply dysfunctional bureaucracy. News revelations of recent weeks and the difficulties of veterans suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injuries to secure treatment in a timely fashion which is so crucial for healing in unconscionable.

The other is much longer range. Several years ago, I was in a somewhat tense dialogue with a friend with sons in the military because I had expressed on social media grave concern over decisions made in Iraq. This was perceived as not “supporting the boys”, including sons of his own serving in Iraq. I responded that it was precisely because I did care deeply and valued the service of these young men and women that I sought to exercise my responsibilities as a citizen. It is always the case with war that older leaders, mostly men, will make decisions that result in young people fighting and dying, or living with the memories of the brutality of war. I think we must honor the sacrifices of these men and women regardless of the wisdom of those who sent them there. But it seems the best way we honor those who train and prepare to put themselves in harm’s way is to never send them to this needlessly, nor with less than all they need to fight with effectiveness. Fool’s errands, and wars fought on the cheap dishonor those who serve and parades in a thousand small towns and large cities will never make up for that.