My brother gave me The Great Alone (2018) by Kristin Hannah at least two or three years ago. It looked interesting, but I have a hard time starting books I already own. I’m always distracted by new library books with due dates, as the books on my shelf sit forlorn and neglected. I finally grabbed The Great Alone when I was heading out on a solo road trip/backpacking trip, and it was the perfect choice. It had adventure, suspense, grittiness, and well-written characters. I can’t believe it took me this long to read it. It also helped that I was born in Alaska. And even though I was so young I barely remember it, I still feel some connection to it.
Leni is thirteen years old when her father announces that they are moving to Alaska. Ernst Allbright has been a different man, broken, since he came home after being a POW in Vietnam. Even moody and angry, his wife Cora still desperately loves him and hopes that someday they can have what they had before. She is willing to follow Ernst anywhere, and Leni has no choice, so the family packs everything they own into a VW bus and they head up to Alaska. An old army buddy who died in Vietnam wanted Ernst to have his land and cabin in a remote part of Alaska near the sea.
Arriving in the spring, the family is still woefully unprepared for what they’ve undertaken. The neighbors in the tiny town help them with practical advice, tools, and supplies, and the three of them buckle down in order to get ready for winter. Despite the hard work and difficult conditions, things go pretty well at first. They make great strides at the homestead, Leni makes a good friend at school (the only person her age), and her father seems to be relatively happy and focused.
But when fall comes and the sun fades away, the darkness in Ernst comes back, too. He is obsessed with preparing his family for the coming apocalypse. Both Cora and Leni are used to navigating his moods, but no matter how careful they are, they can’t keep Ernst from exploding. Then one day, Leni sees her father hit her mother. She realizes that it’s happened before, but it’s harder to keep secrets in a tiny cabin in the middle of nowhere. Cora refuses to leave Ernst for a number of reasons: she loves him unconditionally; she has nowhere else to go; and she’s sure that he’ll kill her if she tries.
Leni and Cora take to Alaska and become tough and able pioneers. But Alaska does not heal Ernst, and he becomes more angry and isolated as the years pass, dragging his family along with him. Eventually things come to a head, but you’re going to have to read it to find out what happens.
I really enjoyed this book. While reading, I looked up Kristin Hannah, and it did not surprise me that she had lived in Alaska for some time. Her descriptions of the beautiful ruggedness of the landscape, the people, and their attitudes felt spot on. The characters felt like real, flawed people. And even though I found Ernst dangerous and terrifying, I felt sorry for him. I also understood why Cora would stay with him. Leni was a great character as well: smart, strong, independent, and loyal. There was a lot going on in this story, Leni growing up, Leni’s love of her mother, the boy at school, survival in Alaska, Cora’s unwavering love of Ernst, and the dangers of domestic violence. Somehow Hannah managed to weave all of this together into a full, compelling story that I wish I had read earlier. Highly recommended.
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