Goodreads: The Great Alone
Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance
Ernt Allbright, a former POW, comes home from the Vietnam war a changed and volatile man. When he loses yet another job, he makes an impulsive decision: he will move his family north, to Alaska, where they will live off the grid in America’s last true frontier.
Thirteen-year-old Leni, a girl coming of age in a tumultuous time, caught in the riptide of her parents’ passionate, stormy relationship, dares to hope that a new land will lead to a better future for her family. She is desperate for a place to belong. Her mother, Cora, will do anything and go anywhere for the man she loves, even if it means following him into the unknown.
At first, Alaska seems to be the answer to their prayers. In a wild, remote corner of the state, they find a fiercely independent community of strong men and even stronger women. The long, sunlit days and the generosity of the locals make up for the Allbrights’ lack of preparation and dwindling resources. But as winter approaches and darkness descends on Alaska, Ernt’s fragile mental state deteriorates and the family begins to fracture. Soon the perils outside pale in comparison to threats from within. In their small cabin, covered in snow, blanketed in eighteen hours of night, Leni and her mother learn the terrible truth: they are on their own. In the wild, there is no one to save them but themselves.
Kristin Hannah is fast becoming an absolute favorite. This was my second book of hers, the first being The Nightingale, and both have been solid five star reads for me. She has a way of making me feel a deep emotional connection and investment in her characters and their lives. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a big crier and in this book, once the tears started at about the 80% mark, they pretty much kept flowing until the end. Hannah paints an enchanting and terrifying portrait of the Alaskan wild, and a family that struggles with the darkness in their lives that mirrors their surrounding environment.
“This state, this place, is like no other. It is beauty and horror; savior and destroyer. Here, where survival is a choice that must be made over and over, in the wildest place in America, on the edge of civilization, where water in all its forms can kill you, you learn who you are. Not who you dreamed of being, not who you imagined you were, not who you were raised to be. All of that will be torn away in the months of icy darkness, when frost on the windows blurs your view and the world gets very small and you stumble into the truth of your existence. You learn what you will do to survive.”
It’s a beautifully written, intensely atmospheric and heartbreaking story of family, love, hope and survival. I thought Hannah’s writing style in this was a lot more descriptive than in The Nightingale, but it isn’t over done and you don’t get bogged down with all the information about a place you almost can’t imagine because of how wild and foreign it is. The writing really helped me immerse myself in the Alaskan setting, which obviously plays a very significant part of the story. I honestly can’t imagine this book being set anywhere else.
“… home was not just a cabin in a deep woods that overlooked a placid cove. Home was a state of mind, the peace that came from being who you were and living an honest life.”
As much as the setting makes the story, so did the characters and I really loved (almost) all of them. Leni was a beautiful main character. Her growth throughout the story was so wonderful to experience that at times I almost felt like a proud little mama hen. That said, it was also very sad. She deals with so much loneliness and isolation, and endures many trying moments with her father, but she always proves how strong and resilient she is by finding new ways to survive. Leni’s tender and innocent love for Matthew (and his for her) was a bright light amongst the dark tones of the story, even when it set me on edge sometimes because I just knew something bad was going to happen (I was right 90% of the time btw). On the other hand, I found myself growing increasingly frustrated with Cora. I’m sorry if it sounds harsh, but Cora was weak and what made it worse was that she would often be purposefully provocative in public! Why would you not only put yourself in that situation but risk putting your daughter in danger with that kind of destructive behavior? Cora and Ernt’s relationship was so incredibly toxic and felt extremely suffocating at times. They were such selfish and immature characters and my heart really broke for Leni because she was such a good, loving and kind daughter.
Although the Allbright’s take center stage, I thought the other characters were also well developed. Matthew Walker, Large Marge and Tom Walker were such heartwarming characters and I became so attached to all of them. We learn about their ‘before-Alaska’ lives and their family history which really made connecting with them even easier. Though sometimes that made this an even more difficult read to get through because there’s so much emotion involved, and it already isn’t an easy read to begin with. A lot of bad things happen through the majority of this book, but I will say that the heartache, frustration and fear is so incredibly worth it in the end.
There was so much life in this novel, I know that I won’t be forgetting it anytime soon. Kristin Hannah is a wonderful storyteller and I’m sorry that I don’t have better words to describe what an amazing book this is and all the things it’s made me feel. You just have to read it for yourself, but be prepared for your feelings to get put through a shredder! Content warning: physical abuse, alcoholism, PTSD
Have you read The Great Alone? Loved it? Hated it? Meh about it?
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