Some books are written for relaxing beach trips, when you don’t want to think to hard about anything and just want a fun story to take up a little space in your brain in between cocktails and afternoon naps.
The Great Alone is not one of those books. Rather, it is a long, emotional haul through the human experience. Sweeping and raw, The Great Alone takes readers off the grid to Alaska in the late 1970s with a family that loves one another too harshly, as viewed through the eyes of a young girl who’s desperate for connection.
Ernt Allbright returned from Vietnam a different man. There is the man he was before being a POW, and the man he is after. His wife, Cora, longs for the man she married and holds out hope that one day he’ll return. She believes the spontaneous, bold move from Seattle to Alaska, albeit wild and unpredictable, will be her husband’s saving grace.
Meanwhile, Leni, their thirteen-year-old daughter, is caught in the fray. Adolescence is hard enough without an abusive father and a mother who keeps up the facade, no matter how exhaustive. She views the move to Alaska as a risk, but it is one she’s willing to take. Change can be good, after all. Pioneers, they become.
What the Allbrights – and readers – don’t anticipate is that Alaska is a character all her own. She is cruel without warning and enchanting when she wants to make amends. She looms large over everything and everyone. No decision about life in Alaska can be made without considering the land, the weather, the wild animals, or how all three create a powerful elixir to scare off even the bravest settlers.
Despite every obstacle, the Allbrights set up house, make acquaintances, and begin a new chapter of hard living off the land. What they didn’t anticipate is how months of darkness would affect Ernt’s mental instability, that others would see through Cora’s pretenses, or that Leni would struggle to navigate her formative years in a small cabin, knee-deep in snow, desperate to see and be seen.
In The Great Alone, our primary focus is Leni and her coming-of-age experience in Alaska, but readers will connect with the perspectives of every character – from Leni’s parents and the prominent townspeople of Connick, to Matthew, the boy Leni falls in love with, and Large Marge, a woman whose conviction becomes a saving grace. The journey isn’t without sacrifice, heartache, and tears (I cried three times), but at every turn there is redemption and hope, a necessary return on our investment. In the end, we learn that Alaskans aren’t made. They are revealed.
The Great Alone is a great journey, one that pokes gently and consistently at our vulnerabilities as humans. What are we willing to endure? What aren’t we? To what end are we resilient and able to survive? For whom will we sacrifice ourselves, and to what length will we go to escape that which is not good for us?
Kristin Hannah is widely known for her New York Times bestseller The Nightingale, where similar challenges are made in regard to the human experience: Who are we? And are we willing to walk through the fire to find out? Similar overtures are made in The Great Alone, which provide a rich delve into the pool of our fears and weaknesses. It is a worthy dive, too. The novel is terrifically hard to put down.
Jennie Treadway-Miller is a writer and photographer living in the rolling foothills of East Tennessee. When she’s not running or reading, she’s homeschooling her two sons and enjoying life with her husband. Together, they enjoy the outdoors, college football, and board games. Read more at jenniecreates.com.
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