I recently finished reading Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone and I loved it! I will admit that I had a very slow start to reading this book. I had just finished Little Fires Everywhere, and I think I had a residual book hangover and picked up this read a bit too soon. However, I always give a book until page 150 before I decide whether to stick it out or not. Right around page 100, this book really picked up speed for me. Initially, this is one of those books that when I started reading, I was hooked and engrossed in the story, but starting wasn’t always at the top of my priority list. However, right around page 100, I was hooked and thinking about this book nonstop. I found myself getting to work early, reading outside of Starbucks before heading to the office, and then hurrying home after work to read a few more chapters before bed.
Similar to Little Fires Everywhere, this book was highly recommended and read by a lot of readers I admire. What I love about this story is that it’s epic. It’s epically tragic, epically forgiving, epically real, epically raw, and just epic. Every aspect is large and proud and in your face, but it’s all sewn together so seamlessly and the closure you get at the end gives you chills. As per usual, I wanted to share the description of this book that is on the book because I think it’s important to see how the book sells itself, and then discuss whether that description is accurate. The dust jacket reads:
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.
As the niece of a Vietnam War veteran, I was hesitant to read about the PTSD that resulted in so many vets (from every war), but particularly following Vietnam. However, this book made me want to know more and more and more about the 70s, the political climate, and what caused the war. I’ve spoken to my uncle a few times about his experience, but, understandably, it’s hard for him to discuss. However, this book was so interesting in how it handled PTSD and the War. For one, I do feel that Ernt would have been abusive (this is a spoiler, but honestly it’s so apparent in the first few chapters, you won’t lose much knowing ahead of reading that abuse is present), regardless of the war. I think, however, he was suffering badly from undiagnosed PTSD. I will note, however, that sometimes it felt like his experience was the sole reason he was abusive, and that bothered me slightly. Maybe I’m being too harsh or idealistic, but I just felt that his experience as a POW would not lead him to be severely abusive to his loved ones. In many ways, the details and treatment of the abuse imply that the abusive side of the father was always there, if only dormant before his war experience. Still, this debate would make an entire essay in an English class.
The other thing I will say about the abuse is that when I first started this book the abuse sometimes felt a little like a trope or too “textbook” domestic violence. The signs too clear. That probably sounds wildly insensitive and I do not mean for it to. What I mean is that oftentimes abuse is layered and complicated and not boiled down to “he didn’t mean it,” “I egged him on,” or “he loves us too much, that’s why he hurts me.” HOWEVER, (and I shout this because it’s very important), it is important to remember that this book is set in the 70s, when domestic violence was not as recognized and prevented and the law did not serve victims justice. Further, I loved Leni’s story arc in relation to the abuse. She transforms from a young, naive child who is told what to believe into an independent, strong, won’t-take-the-unhealthy-behavior shit from anyone. I will say, the abusive scenes were hard to read and I had to set the book down a few times just to calm myself.
While this book is being touted by many as predominantly about abuse, I felt it was much more about love and survival and the power we find within ourselves to go after what we want, stand up for ourselves against all odds, and the sacrifices we make to keep those we love safe. It’s a story about motherhood and the responsibility that both daughters and mothers feel toward each other. Also, I just adore Matthew and Leni’s relationship. I don’t want to spoil anything about them because their storyline gave so much and was so fun to read and watch develop! But… I will say, I love them. Their love story is both endearing and heart-wrenching. It’s a bit of Romeo and Juliet if Romeo and Juliet lived in a wild, unforgiving landscape. There is a bit at the end where some things are left unclear, and we get a handful of chapters before we ever get closure. While reading that handful of chapters, I was so annoyed. I just wanted to know what happened. However, once you know, you feel the epicness of a love that shouldn’t survive but does, in whatever form it takes.
Finally, I loved how Alaska was its own character, but also served, in many ways, as a representation of Leni’s home life and her parents’ marriage. The land, much like her parents, could be beautiful and loving and enchanting, but also wild and dangerous and unpredictable. The similarities between tip-toeing around the cabin so as to not upset Ernt and tip-toeing over frozen-over bodies of water left an uneasiness as I was reading. The tension, when relieved in the home, was often still present in the landscape.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book and am very glad I read it. It isn’t a book I’d ordinarily pick up, but I’m thankful I listened to the recommendations!
Next up, The Female Persuasion. What are you reading?