All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

on January 30, 2018

The Great Alone 
Kristin Hannah
Pan Macmillan AUS
2018, 438p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Alaska, 1974. Untamed. Unpredictable. A story of a family in crisis struggling to survive at the edge of the world, it is also a story of young and enduring love.

Cora Allbright and her husband, Ernt – a recently returned Vietnam veteran scarred by the war – uproot their thirteen-year-old daughter, Leni, to start a new life in Alaska. Utterly unprepared for the weather and the isolation, but welcomed by the close-knit community, they fight to build a home in this harsh, beautiful wilderness.

At once an epic story of human survival and love, and an intimate portrait of a family tested beyond endurance, The Great Alone offers a glimpse into a vanishing way of life in America. With her trademark combination of elegant prose and deeply drawn characters, Kristin Hannah has delivered an enormously powerful story that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the remarkable and enduring strength of women. It is the finest example of Hannah’s ability to weave together the deeply personal with the universal.

As many people may know, I love anything about Alaska. Just the mere mention of it makes books auto-read, TV shows a must watch, etc. I love the wildness, the scenery, the fact that so much of it is still quite untouched. I watch the TV shows partially for the scenery, partially for the fascination with life in Alaska away from the towns. I really enjoy the idea of homesteading, of living off the land and seeing how various people accomplish it. This book is a step further, it’s life in Alaska back in 1974, so this was always going to be high up on my priority list.

It’s told though the eyes of Lenore (Leni) Allbright, who is just 13 when her father finds out an old army buddy has left him land in Alaska. The two were together in the Vietnam war and although Leni’s father Ernt came home after being captured and held hostage for many years, his friend didn’t. Ernt has been struggling since he returned from the war – the family hasn’t been able to settle anywhere, Ernt can’t keep a job. There are nightmares, irrational behaviour. He thinks the answer to all of his problems lies in Alaska. The remoteness of it, the physicality of life there. That will make things better.

The family knows nothing about homesteading when they move and the conditions are very primitive, even for living off grid in Alaska. It’s situated near Kachemak Bay (an area I know relatively well as it’s close to the Kilcher compound in Alaska The Last Frontier) and although the local community is small, they are incredibly helpful, ready to give Ernt, Leni’s mother Cora and Leni a crash course in all the need to know for life, Alaska style.

With the benefit of 40yrs of progress, it’s easy to know what plagues Ernt but this was a different time and Vietnam was a very contentious war. It’s clear that he needs the sort of help that wasn’t available at the time. Cora laments that Leni doesn’t remember her father in ‘the before’, before he went away to Vietnam. Before whatever happened to him that left those terrible scars on his skin, burn scars, happened. Before he came back a hollow shell of a man with a fondness for drink and trouble controlling his temper. Whereas Ernt thinks that Alaska is the answer to all his problems, both Leni and Cora know that bad weather troubles him. Moving to a place with a very long winter that has days where the sun barely rises could be an issue. However, the family seems to mostly operate under the motto of ‘what Ernt wants, Ernt gets’ and that anything he feels may help him is worth a try.

Because the reader never sees the Ernt of the ‘before’ we only have Cora’s word to go on that he was indeed, very different. It’s not entirely established whether or not he was prone to fits of temper beforehand and it’s difficult to tell for sure because a lot of his violence seems to revolve around jealousy of men that may be interested in Cora, men that she may have paid attention to, etc. Although there’s no doubt Ernt has what would be termed now PTSD, which explains the nightmares, the irrational behaviour, inability to keep a job, being constantly on the move, I’m not sure it seems to explain the violence. Maybe it does – but it’s all centred on one person, revolving around mostly one thing. So I am not sure, especially with the heavy hand of victim blaming that comes with it. Most of the time that just seems like stone cold domestic abuse whenever something happens that he doesn’t like. At times Ernt is also prone to bouts of paranoia and becomes kind of a doomsday prepper but without really much prepping as such. Instead of farming, cultivating animals and crops and building things, Ernt spends a lot of time drinking and prophetising the end of the world, whereby only he will have the ability to survive what is coming, based on ‘what he knows’. What Ernt knows I’m not that sure, whether it’s skills he picked up in the war or if he’s referring to his awareness, which will give him the edge. However this means that the bulk of ‘learning’ how to live in Alaska falls to Cora and Leni. Cora adapts and Leni thrives as the years go by.

Although I really enjoyed this – I loved Leni and her resourcefulness, her adaptability and her loyalty, I actually wanted a bit more about Alaska. To be honest the setting didn’t scream Alaska or homesteading really. It could’ve been set anywhere relatively cold and remote. There wasn’t a lot about the day to day routine, how much preparation they had to do, what they grew etc. It was glossed over, as were the long winters, often skipped in the narrative entirely. I wanted to know more about them adjusting to this new, completely different life on the land in a place with a completely different climate. The locals helped them out at first and we saw a few preparations but I thought there should’ve been more. This would be a harsh, steep learning curve for anyone but it didn’t seem as though we really got that picture as much as we could have. There are times when I feel as though the book touches on things but then shies away to focus on something else. But I understand also that the focus was on the family, the shifting troubled dynamics between Ernt, Cora and Leni and how the move to Alaska affected things, in some ways for the better in other ways for worse. I loved the character of Large Marge – she was both light relief and a force to be reckoned with and a clever woman. Alaska really does attract all sorts, I’ve noticed that before. It’s definitely not for everyone and you have to have a certain type of personality to stay there. Despite my fascination of it, I know I couldn’t live there. But I will live vicariously in fact and fiction!


Book #17 of 2018



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