The Book Whisperer resisted reading The Great Alone just as she resisted reading The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah—primarily because of the hype. Then I went to a book club meeting at my local library. Marilyn, a member of the club (and also a friend from yet another book club!) was holding The Great Alone which she had found on the Quick Pick shelf. She had already read it, so she was trying to see if anyone else in the group wanted to check it out. Since The Great Alone was unexpectedly readily available, I checked it out. I’m reading only four other books at the same time, so why not five?
The Great Alone has received a great deal of attention and reviews of it abound. Here’s my take on the book. Hannah has created a memorable story peopled with a variety of characters, oddball, ordinary, and extraordinary. Alaska itself becomes a character in the story because of its beauty, its danger, and its unpredictability.
People move to Alaska for all sorts of reasons, good and bad. The Allbrights unexpectedly inherit a piece of property complete with a ramshackle cabin in Kaneq, Alaska, a remote village. Ernt Allbright, a returned Vietnam vet and former POW, suffers from nightmares, depression, and anger. Cora, his wife, and Leni, his thirteen-year-old daughter, know to stay out of his way as much as they can when the bad moods strike. The family moves often because Ernt, though an excellent mechanic, cannot hold a job very long at a time.
In his dark moods, Ernt is violent and abusive to Cora. The pair continue that domestic violence circle of beatings, forgiveness, beatings, and forgiveness. Cora insists that she cannot leave Ernt because she loves him. She also knows he will come after her if she does leave. Cora never presses charges against Ernst. For a long time, Leni is immune from her father’s beatings even though he may lash out verbally at her.
The sudden move to Alaska is supposed to solve all the family’s problems. They can “live off the grid.” The family is ill-prepared to live in the remote village in Alaska. And what will the long, long, dark days and nights do for Ernt’s depression and rage? He thinks he can live with his family in isolation and all will be well.
The Allbrights must overcome their own ignorance of how to live in such a dangerous climate. They need to learn how to protect themselves, to kill wild game and prepare it for storage and later for the table, and they need chickens and goats as domestic animals for food and milk. As a reader, I have some problem with the learning curve that must occur. Even though the Allbrights arrive in May and have the summer to prepare, that is not really enough time to be ready for the dark, freezing winter ahead.
Ernt meets like-minded people, Mad Earl, whose son willed Ernt the property, and Mad Earl’s extended family. They are certain a pandemic, a nuclear bomb, or natural catastrophe will befall the US, so they are survivalists, prepared for any eventuality. They have weapons, stockpiles of food and a compound they can protect and defend against marauders in case of disaster. Ernt buys into their paranoia because he is already on that track with his PTSD. In fact, as time goes on, Ernt becomes more obsessive than Mad Earl and his clan.
Tom Walker represents another prominent family. Tom’s grandparents homesteaded years earlier, so his family has been in Alaska for many years, making him Alaskan royalty. Walker is also wealthy from inherited money and his own hard work. He and his wife are separated and she lives with another man nearby. Their son Matthew, Leni’s age, moves between the two parents’ homes.
Large Marge must be included in the cast of characters. She runs the general store, such as it is, in Kaneq. She is a former prosecutor from DC. As her name suggests, she is a large woman with many skills and becomes a great friend to Cora and Leni. She tells the Allbrights that the community works together and they not only help one another, but they also look out for one another. Large Marge cautions the Allbrights that “Alaska herself can be Sleeping Beauty one minute and a bitch with a sawed-off shotgun the next. There’s a saying: Up here you can make one mistake. The second one will kill you.”
Of course, along with his paranoia and PTSD, Ernt is jealous; Cora is a beautiful woman and she enjoys attention. Even though she never does anything wrong, Ernt is immediately jealous of Tom Walker because he pays a little attention to Cora. Even if Tom simply acts neighborly, Ernt is suspicious and jealous.
Ernt tries to stir up trouble, pitting himself and the Mad Earl clan against Tom Walker, especially when Walker says he is bringing improvements like electricity and a new saloon to Kaneq. Ernt keeps comparing Walker’s changes to Disneyland or Los Angeles, far from the truth. Unfortunately for Ernt, he picks the wrong battle because Mad Earl and his clan decline to join in the fight against Walker. They take jobs with Walker in the building of the lodge and saloon. They tell Ernt he is off base. He is the newcomer and trying to divide the long-time members of the village.
To retaliate, Ernt decides to build a WALL (sound like a familiar refrain?) around his family’s compound. Of course, this wall, not only keeps others out, it keeps Cora and Lena as prisoners because once the wall is complete, Ernt puts a huge chain over the entrance and wears the key to the lock around his nect.
Even when Leni and Cora very privately discuss running away, the odds are against them. How can they manage to leave with only the clothes on their backs when Ernt has walled them in? Of course, Hannah adds romance to the story between Matthew Walker and Leni Allbright – Romeo and Juliet. The two are thirteen when they meet and they feel an instant connection partly because they are the only two that age in the village.
With Ernt becoming more and more paranoid and with the building of the wall to surround the property, Cora and Leni face greater dangers from the man they love than they do from the cold, dark, and wilderness. To discover what happens, read The Great Alone.
Kristin Hannah’s Web site: https://kristinhannah.com/.
A nearby town where the people of Kaneq can find supplies, Homer, Alaska’s Web site: https://www.homeralaska.org/