The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah

Seven stars

There is something about Alaska that tends to pique my interest, though I cannot put a finger on precisely what it might be. Could it be that it is so isolated from all that I know or that the stories that come from this far-away land tend to contrast so much with those I am used to reading? Whatever it might be, Kristin Hannah takes the reader on quite the adventure, exploring the land as well as the psyche of the characters she peppers throughout this piece. After her father is returned stateside from a P.O.W. camp in Vietnam, Lenora ‘Leni’ Allbright is not sure how things will change at home. Having spent so much time with only her mother, Leni is forced to acclimate to this new dynamic. When Ernt Allbright learns that he has been left a parcel of land up in Alaska, he announces that they’ll relocate there for a fresh start. With a few supplies to get started, Ernt leads his wife, Cora, and Leni up North to part of the world that Robert Service poetically called ‘The Great Alone’. It is here that things begin to unravel, as Ernt suffers from debilitating nightmares, which turn him sour and help justify an alcoholic crutch. This altered state has him raising a fist to a wife who has succumb to his violent ways, having forgotten her feminist beliefs from earlier in the decade. It’s 1974 and Leni is isolated from her friends and the world at large, a horrific thing for any girl of thirteen. As the story progresses through a series of vignettes, Leni begins to set down some roots and soon finds solace in the only classmate her own age, Matthew Walker. Leni comes of age in this desolate land and learns to hate her father’s explosive temper, but also her mother’s inability to leave him behind. Even when an escape from this vast loneliness seems possible, Leni finds a way to put the kibosh on it and remain cemented in the one place she cannot stand. Surrounded by others, the Allbrights each find their own way to suffer in the ‘Great Alone’, but might there be a glimpse of happiness on the horizon for the Allbrights, or simply the dashing of the Northern Lights? Well-crafted and strong on character development, Kristin Hannah offers an interesting tale of self-discovery against a frigid backdrop. Recommended for those who enjoy tales that take things off the beaten path and allow characters to meander along ti find their own way.

I agreed to try this book when a good friend of mine mentioned that it was set in Alaska. I read the dust jacket summary and immediately felt that I had to explore what Kristin Hannah might have to offer. What I discovered was that Goodreads was flooded with laudatory comments for this book, finding diamonds on offer with the turn of each page. While I cannot echo some of the blind praise, I did feel that there was much more to this book than the summary promises. Leni is an interesting character, who has been torn away from everything she knew and forced to grow up quickly. She suffers loss, anger, and isolation simultaneously, but cannot convince herself to shed this skin when given the chance, falling back on her loyalty above all else. Cora and Ernt also prove noteworthy, enriching their daughter’s journey while also proving to be oil and water in their marital interactions. The Allbrights serve to complement one another well, but seem so different that it is no wonder that they cannot live under the same roof in harmony. The author offers a handful of other characters who push the narrative forward effectively and serve to offer depth to the various vignettes that provide glimpses into this jagged way of life, loosely woven together to call this journey a single story. Speaking of vignettes, I agree with the idea put forward by some that there is no true sense of story arc, in that the entire narrative is a set of pocketed happenings that resolve themselves before moving onto the next. The reader may have a hard time solidifying their appreciation or ire towards anyone, as things keep changing, like the pieces of an ice floe. There is no setting other than Alaska that Kristin Hannah could have used and kept some of the deeper meanings within the novel. Symbolism peppers the narrative to the point that the reader cannot deny its existence. Each of the three protagonists seek to define and resolve their own form of ‘alone’ doing so with varied degrees of success. While I cannot offer blind praise, I can see significant growth in the characters throughout and in myself as I travelled this journey alongside them.

Kudos, Madam Hannah, for such a thought-provoking piece. I am happy to have taken the time to read this novel, but remain on the fence if I want to try more of your work. Allow this book to percolate for a while.

\A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: