The Great Alone – Kristin Hannah
Final Thoughts: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Leni’s young life is turned sideways when her father, Ernt, a Vietnam War POW, whisks her family away for a new life in the wide frontier of Alaska. It is 1974; women still can’t sign for credit cards, and Cora, a dutiful wife and mother, encourages Leni that Alaska will be a new start for the family, and hopes that the version of Ernt she loved before the war will return to her. When they arrive in the remote wilderness of their new home, they are supported and cautioned by their neighbors to take their situation seriously, and not to underestimate the harshness of their surroundings. As they head into an Alaskan winter, the daytime shrinks and shrinks, and Ernt’s darkness begins to fill the space left behind. When Leni witnesses him physically abusing Cora, her view of life is permanently altered. She meets Matthew, the son of Ernt’s town enemy, and as they fall in love, she risks the wrath of her paranoid father. Ernt seals them off from the world into their homestead, and Leni must fight her own father for a happier life.
The Great Alone threw me into my largest gap between finishing books. This book made me take a seat. It looked me in the face and was like “Tyler, full stop, because Leni Allbright deserves all of your attention.” It took my ten days to finish this book, which is to say I chose to patiently savor it, and not let it run away from me too quickly.
Kristin Hannah’s book is as vast and expansive as the Alaskan wilderness. With young Leni at the center of this strange environment, we watch her life story, seeing how her past has decided her future, and how the ripples spread through the years. Hannah has absolutely nailed character development in Leni, specifically. As her world changes, her family collapses, and she experiences her first loves and losses, we see as the very core of her attitude and perspective adapts. Leni is made malleable by the decisions around her, and it’s so interesting to see an author capture these nuances.
Hannah’s descriptive language captures the Alaskan wilderness in a powerful way. Her prose is so completely vivid, and I often felt like I could see the colors in an Alaskan sunset, hear the wind whipping past a silent horizon, and see how clearly the water reflected the mountains. Alaska should consider using The Great Alone as a tourism prop, because I really just want to hop on a plane and visit this beautiful place (sorry Ernt, I know you would hate me for this statement).
The true strength of this novel lies in its characters. Hannah has managed to make even the secondary characters lovable and charming (I’m looking at you, Large Marge). Ernt, with all of his suspicion and apocalyptic paranoia, makes me furious for threatening his child’s happiness. Cora, interestingly enough, makes me even angrier when she asks Leni time and time again to tiptoe around her father and sacrifice for his happiness. Cora is beaten and abused, but she refuses to leave, and she asks Leni to not do anything to provoke retaliation by Ernt, because she knows that she’ll receive the violence for it. I totally understand why Cora responds this way, as a battered woman, but it makes me angrier for Leni’s sake all the same. I wish this girl could just be a child, for goodness sake.
Hannah has created an immense story laced with suspense and tragedy, and Leni’s first romantic experiences with Matthew are lovely and heart-wrenching. This novel isn’t a thriller and it isn’t necessarily a fast-paced read, but the obstacles in the path of their young love kept me on the edge of my seat the whole time. Their relationship is so emotional, innocent, and heartfelt, and the thought of what Ernt might do to stop it is terrifying.
Without mentioning any spoilers, Cora’s actions at the climax of the novel did, admittedly, confuse me. Her response to her situation seemed out-of-character, which was, perhaps, the point, but she places her and Leni on a life path that doesn’t really seem like it would be the most beneficial for either of them, but for Leni especially. The last bit of this story felt oddly different in tone and pacing, and I often found myself questioning some of the latter plot points.
Also, this is a terribly little point, but it stuck in my mind. Ernt uses a catchphrase repeatedly with his paranoid, survivalist friends. He says “when TSHTF”, which means “when the shit hits the fan”, referring to a government takeover or the world ends. He almost always uses it in this acronym form. He also says “GD” to mean “goddamn” at one point. I honestly just couldn’t see Ernt using these acronyms instead of the real worlds, especially when “TSHTF” seems more of a mouthful than the real phrase. It was a very strange detail, and I’d love to know that there was a reason behind it, but it stuck out as verifiably strange.
The Great Alone is a huge story, with realistic characters on intensely emotional journeys. The characters are wonderfully nuanced; Ernt is a monster, but he does have his reasons, and Cora can be selfish, but she has her reasons. It is not always easy to root for each character, but neither is it easy to root against all of them. It was such a fun novel to discuss with the ladies that I buddy read it with; we all had so much to ponder over. It is an incredibly unique landscape of fear, suspense, and love, and I’d venture to say that it’s one of the best pieces of literary fiction of 2018.