The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
Published: February 6/18. St Martin’s Press
Ernt Allbright, a Vietnam war vet and prisoner of war, has never been the same since he returned home.
He is violent, cannot maintain a job, moves his family around the country and turns to alcohol to ease his troubled and tormented mind. When an old friend from the war leaves Ernt some land and a cabin in Alaska, he quickly packs up and takes off to yet another “new beginning.” Dragging along his wife Cora and 13-year-old daughter, Leni, the girls are both hesitant by Ernt’s claims that “this is what they need,” and “this time will be different.”
For a while, the move actually seems to be what the Allbright family needs. With generous help from the friendly locals, Leni and her family begin to settle in to their new life. They grow vegetables, hunt for meat, and become self-sufficient. Ernt becomes more stable, Leni finally settles into her new school and befriends the only kid her age – Matthew. For once, things are actually looking brighter for this family. Until winter approaches and the nights grow longer. Ernt’s frail mind begins to crack, and he spends more time consuming alcohol with his new friends who have the same cynical view on what “their America is turning into.” While he’s away from the homestead, Leni and Cora are forced to fight against the elements and the dangerous wildlife all by themselves.
Hannah has a cast of many different characters that each brings something to the story. There is Ernt, whom the readers will feels some sympathy for, but for me it was hard to have sympathy when all I could see was his drinking and wife beating. For those readers who know of this situation a little too well, they will also feel annoyance and frustration with Ernt’s poor decisions to surround himself with hateful people who spill poisonous thoughts into his already tortured mind. Cora is a mother who loves her daughter, but her twisted, love sick relationship with her husband makes me question her ability to think clearly on what is best for Leni. So many times in this novel we hear Cora making excuses for her husband, or refusing to leave because “he will never take me back, he will never forgive me” – what about Leni and what’s best for her?
Leni views her parents’ relationship as confusing, and many times we see her get angry, but settle into this twisted cycle of love and abuse, which no child should ever have to get use to. Her father had taught her about the dangers in the outside world, but soon Leni realizes that the real danger lurks inside the cabin with she and her mother.
Hannah has also done remarkable job at turning the land of Alaska – majestic, beautiful, but also deadly, into another important character of the novel. At times I found myself completely mesmerized by the description of this enchanting land.
Kirsten Lowe studies at Athabasca University.