The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
Published by St. Martin’s Press on January 30th, 2018
Genres: Historical Fiction
“All this time, Dad had taught Leni how dangerous the outside world was. The truth was that the biggest danger of all was in her own home.”
CW: domestic violence, PTSD
What. A. Book. I’ve had my eye on this since it came out last year and I’m so glad that I finally got to read it. In fact, I finished it in one day because I was completely engrossed in the story. I hated myself for having to put it down to get water or food. That’s how much I wanted to keep reading it!
The Great Alone follows Leni Allbright, a girl coming of age in a rather tumultuous time in history and in her own life. Her father, Ernt Allbright, is a former POW who comes home from the Vietnam war a changed and volatile man. When he loses yet another job, he decided to impulsively move his whole family to Alaska.
At first, Alaska seems to be the answer to their prayers. They seem to bond with the community and are closer as a family. But as winter approaches, Ernt’s fragile mental state deteriorates and the family begins to question their move. But is the harsh winter and the wilderness their only problems? Or is there something even more dangerous threatening their lives?
One thing that Hannah does extremely well is her ability to create an atmosphere that pulls the reader in. As you’re reading the book, you feel like you’re experiencing the hot and endless daylight in the summer as well as the perilous and difficult winters.
In many ways, Hannah made Alaska another main character that couldn’t be ignored. It was looming over the characters as they made choices to survive in the Great Alone. You could appreciate the beautiful Alaskan landscape while also being terrified of all the dangers it offered.
Hannah created a survival story wrapped up in another survival story. Struggling to find a place in a new setting is one thing, but having to also survive abusive family dynamics is another.
I found that for the most part, it can be very difficult to paint abusive characters as complex. Many times there aren’t explanations for why they are violent. You hate Ernt while you’re reading, but you can’t help but acknowledge that he’s grappling with a mental illness in a time when nobody was open about it.
You’re going to want to throw the book because you’re frustrated at Cora for continuing to stand by his side, but you understand that she’s a victim of abuse. Or when you wonder why Lenni doesn’t try harder to convince her mom to leave, you understand that she’s a kid who shouldn’t have to make these kinds of decisions.
Even though it’s set in the 1970s, you can’t help but associate the events with what’s happening now in our world. I liked how Hannah was able to capture the feeling of living in a bubble, the resistance to change, and being afraid of the “Outside” or “Others.” Ernt wants to protect his family and community from change by putting a wall up (metaphorically and physically), but it’s of course, paranoid and delusional.
I especially liked how the author captured the feeling of these Alaskans living in a isolated bubble of their own, being afraid of the “Outside” and the possibility of change. You can draw parallels between this and anyone who has ever desired to put up a wall to keep the “Other” out. Ernt – as well as others in their tiny town – wants to protect the community from any kind of change; from anyone who might come in and affect their way of life. It is, of course, paranoid.
This book captured my heart and soul, but I ultimately gave it a 4 instead of a 5 bubble tea rating because of the ending. It felt rushed and unrealistic. After an incredible deep dive into the Allbright family, the citizens of Kaneq, and the harrowing nature of surviving in Alaska, the ending felt very out of place. Personally, I thought that it did a disservice to Lenni and Cora after all they had been through.
Having said that, I did enjoy this book and would recommend it to everyone. It’s an intense character study and I couldn’t put it down. I finished it in one day because I wanted to see Lenni triumph as Ernt continued to descend into madness and paranoia.