I’m a long time Kristin Hannah fan. She started off writing women’s fiction and I often recommended her books to Danielle Steel readers who wanted to step up a bit. Then she wrote The Nightingale, and never looked back. That book lingered on the NY Times bestseller list for well over a year, a real anomoly for fiction and certainly well deserved. The Great Alone debuted at number one on that list and I have a feeling this book, too, shall linger.
Leni Allbright is a young teenager who has lived a difficult life. Her father, Ernt, is a Vietnam war vet obviously suffering from severe PTSD, undiagnosed and untreated at that time. Her mom, Cora, loves her husband madly and truly seems to understand the demons that drive him. He can’t hold a job, he drinks to much, and he has black moods on a regular basis. Leni has a harder time, but knows her father loves her. Leni and her mom are very close, unusually close for a child that age, but the family constantly moves, often several times a year, due to Ernt’s troubles, so Leni and Cora cling to each other.
Ernt receives a letter from the father of an old army buddy of who had died in the war, informing him that his buddy has left him 40 acres and a house in the wilds of Alaska. This book opens in 1974 in the pre-cruise era, and even the cities in Alaska weren’t all that populated. Ernt decides this is just the break he needs and he loads his family into an old VW bus and they make the drive from Seattle to Alaska.
They arrive in the tiny town and are amazed – the main street has a general store and a bar and not much else. The population is in the double digits and everyone who lives there is living off the grid – no electricity, no running water, just spectacular vistas and a very hard life. Fortunately, they arrive in spring so they have the summer to prepare for the long, hard winter. Ernt seems happy, and Cora and Leni are enjoying learning to hunt, how to can fruits and vegetables for winter, how to smoke fish and so forth. Leni goes to school in the one room schoolhouse and makes her first real friend. But as darkness falls on Alaska, so does Ernt’s mood.
This is a fascinating look at a life most of us would never experience, living entirely off the land and bartering for whatever else you need. It is also a coming of age story, a story about the effects of war, about an abusive marriage, anarchy, and more. While the storyline is nothing like The Nightingale, it is about two strong women and the life they build, something Hannah excels at. This is not a happy story, but a dark, searing one that will be staying with me for a very long time. It is such a gripping novel that I just couldn’t put it down and I can’t wait to talk to someone who has read it – it will make a fabulous book discussion. Don’t miss it.
2/18 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch
THE GREAT ALONE by Kristin Hannah. Holtzbrinck Publishers; First Edition edition (February 6, 2018). ISBN 978-0312577230. 448p.