The Great Aloneby Kristin Hannah Published 06 Feb 2018
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Unpredictable. Unforgiving. Untamed.
For a family in crisis, the ultimate test of survival.
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.
In this unforgettable portrait of human frailty and resilience, Kristin Hannah reveals the indomitable character of the modern American pioneer and the spirit of a vanishing Alaska―a place of incomparable beauty and danger. The Great Alone is a daring, beautiful, stay-up-all-night story about love and loss, the fight for survival, and the wildness that lives in both man and nature.
"The Great Alone" Reviews
All this time, Dad had taught Leni how dangerous the outside world was. The truth was that the biggest danger of all was in her own home.
This book completely stole my heart. Maybe it's just more fresh in my mind, but I'm pretty sure I enjoyed The Great Alone even more than Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale. In fact, it was verging on a five-star read for me until the final few chapters-- which I felt were too rushed and more sentimental than I personally like. But I still highly recommend it.
I loved the atmosphere that Hannah created. She deftly draws the wild beauty of the Alaskan landscape, painting it as the visually stunning and dangerous place it is. Set in the 1970s and 80s, this is about a family of three arriving at the last frontier in search of a different kind of life. And, boy, do they get it.
The Allbrights must work themselves to the bone just to survive the perilous winter in Alaska, but we soon learn that for thirteen-year-old Leni and her mother Cora, there are dangers far greater and far closer to home than black bears and the freezing climate.
They were trapped, by environment and finances, but mostly by the sick, twisted love that bound her parents together.
The author wraps up a survival story inside a survival story. As the family grapple with raising livestock and gathering supplies for the long winter, they also must deal with the fragile, abusive dynamics that exist within their home. Ernt is a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD before anyone knew what PTSD was and this, in turn, leads to violent episodes and paranoid behaviour that threatens the safety of his family.
The complexity of the characters makes this book something extra special. You hate Ernt, and yet are forced to acknowledge that he is dealing with a mental illness back when no one was willing to call it such. You feel frustrated at Cora for sticking by him, and yet she is clearly a victim of abuse. Add to this mix a set of charming secondary characters, a budding romance, snowstorms, near-death experiences and animal encounters, and you have a book that is utterly enthralling.
I especially liked how the author captured the feeling of these Alaskans living in a isolated bubble of their own, being afraid of the "Outside" and the possibility of change. You can draw parallels between this and anyone who has ever desired to put up a wall to keep the "Other" out. Ernt - as well as others in their tiny town - wants to protect the community from any kind of change; from anyone who might come in and affect their way of life. It is, of course, paranoid and delusional.
I could probably go on and on forever, but I'll just say I loved almost all of it. I loved how, like in The Nightingale, Hannah shows the importance and the strength of the relationships between female characters. I loved the Alaskan setting and the multiple tales of survival against the odds. And I loved how everything had something of a fairy tale quality to it, dark places and broken dreams included.
Mama had quit high school and “lived on love.” That was how she always put it, the fairy tale. Now Leni was old enough to know that like all fairy tales, theirs was filled with thickets and dark places and broken dreams, and runaway girls.
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Wow!! This was a FANTASTIC novel. There’s no way that anyone could have pried this book from my hands while I was reading it.
Kristin Hannah is one of my favorite authors and I am always excited when a new book is going to be released. When I found out that her new book, “The Great Alone” was set in Alaska in 1974 (the year I was born); I was itching to get reading.
As the book opens, we meet the Allbright family. Ernt, Cora, and their daughter, Leni. Thirteen year old, Leni is listening to her parents arguing. The terrible weather has brought out the darkness in him again. It hadn’t always been like this. Before the war they were happy. When he finally came home, Leni saw nothing of the laughing and handsome man she once knew. He had nightmares and trouble sleeping. He was moody and quick to anger….so very quick to anger.
It’s not just the Allbright family that’s struggling. Morale is at an all-time low and gas prices are at an all time high. The world is in crisis. People are scared with everything that’s been happening. Bombings, hijacked planes, and now college girls in Washington State have been disappearing. Danger is everywhere.
But then her dad comes home with his “Big Idea” smile. A friend who died in the war left him some property in Alaska. Her father is ecstatic. It’s a place where they can live a decent life…away from all of the madness. A simple life on land that they can live off…grow their own vegetables, hunt, and be free.
“I need this, Cora. I need a place where I can breathe again. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to crawl out of my skin. Up there, the flashbacks and shit will stop, I know it. We need this. We can go back to the way things were before ‘Nam screwed me up.”
He promises he’ll do better, that he’ll cut down on drinking. Leni has seen this all before but she won’t put up a fuss about moving again. She’ll do as she’s asked.
“Because that was what love was”
The trip to Alaska was almost like a family vacation. It was amazing and Leni was truly happy. Her dad even laughed and smiled. He was like he was “Before”. However, when they arrive in Kaneq, things are different from what they imagined. There’s a tiny cabin with a rotted deck, a yard full of old animal bones, and junk as far as the eye could see. No TV, no electricity, no running water. But Leni can handle all of that. She’ll make the best of it, especially if it helps her Dad.
“And he’ll be happy this time”
Two types of people come to Alaska, people who are running to something or running away from something. With no police station and no telephone service, Alaska gives new meaning to the word...Remote.
“Alaska herself can be Sleeping Beauty one minute and a bitch with a sawed-off shotgun the next”
Most people are welcoming and helpful, though Leni wonders if some may not be so good for her father. People like Mad Earl and Clyde. “ Drinking whisky and eating hate” When they talk about what’s destroying America, when TSHTF, and “ The rich, riding on the backs of better men ” it makes Leni nervous.
The Allbright’s settle in and Leni starts to wonder if things might actually be okay. Unfortunately, it’s not long before she sees things haven’t changed. In fact, things seem to be getting worse.
Could the darkness and the danger in her home be more treacherous than the worst Alaskan winter?
Kristin Hannah has done it again!
I loved this book. An entertaining and emotional read with an engrossing plot and well-developed characters. I could almost feel the bitter cold from the long isolating winters. But I could also see the beauty of Alaska with its gorgeous mountains and blue skies.
Hope, love, and memory can keep you stuck. The 1970’s, a time when a woman still needed a man’s signature to get a credit card. The lack of understanding and assistance available. They called it “Gross Stress Reaction” or “ Battle Fatigue” back then… the horrible flashbacks and nightmares, the anxiety and anger, the inability to cope with regular life. Now it’s called PTSD post traumatic stress disorder or PTSI – post traumatic stress injury . Soldiers, who gave everything to the war, then came back to a world that many of them couldn’t function in, a world that didn’t know how to help them heal.
“The Great Alone” does not disappoint. This was another fascinating, thought-provoking, and captivating read. Heartbreaking at times... but there were also moments of great love and unbelievable kindness. A gripping story where I was desperate to know what was going to happen next. A bittersweet but satisfying ending topped off this amazing read.
Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for providing an advanced readers copy of this book for me to read in exchange for my honest review.
“Were you ever out in the Great Alone,
when the moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in
with a silence you most could hear;
With only the howl of a timber wolf, and
you camped there in the cold,
A half-dead thing in a stark, dead world,
clean mad for the muck called gold;
While high overhead, green, yellow and
red, the North Lights swept in bars? —
Then you've a hunch what the music
meant. . . hunger and night and the stars. “
( From The Shooting of Dan McGrew by Robert W. Service)
It's to the wilderness of Alaska, this "Great Alone", a most fitting description, that Leni Allbright and her parents go, seeking yet another place that her mother hoped would be the place that made her dad happy. Kristin Hannah with vivid descriptions takes the reader here and while I've never been to Alaska, I certainly felt as though I was. Ernt Allbright, a POW who returned home from Vietnam a very different man could never keep a job and moved his family from place to place, clearly suffers from PTSD. It isn't until they move to Alaska that 13 year old Leni , realizes just how bad things are and the imminent danger in their lives. I couldn't help but love Leni. She's wise for her age recognizing what might set off her father's rage. As she grows and her character develops, into a strong , amazing woman in spite of all the tragedy and heartache, I loved her even more. My favorite passage is from Leni's college application several years later: "Books are the mile markers of my life. Some people have family photos or home movies to record their past. I've got books. Characters. For as long as I can remember, books have been my safe place. I read about places I can barely imagine and lose myself to journeys to foreign lands to save girls who didn't know they were really princesses. Only recently have I learned why I needed those faraway worlds."
Leni has a loving bond with her mother and together they try to survive this place with the freezing, treacherous, winters and the most terrifying of dangers that they face within the cabin where they live - the mental instability, the volatility combined with alcohol, and violence of her father as he wreaks havoc in their lives and the people of the town. It is the friendships that Leni and Cora make with a fabulous cast of characters that help them survive it all. Large Marge was my favorite but I also loved Matthew who was the only friend Leni could remember having in her life. This is more than a coming of age story. It’s about the reality of post war PTSD, the awful reality of spousal abuse, about the sense of community, of belonging, about survival not just in the wilderness of Alaska but in life in with challenges that seem insurmountable. I don't often cry when reading a book, but this was one of the times. It's gripping, gritty, heartbreaking and hopeful and illustrates the versatile storytelling of Kristin Hannah.
It was impossible for me to forgive Ernt, even knowing that he was a POW, but he brought to mind the POW's bracelet I wore for a long time. I remember his name but out of privacy and respect for him, I won’t mention it here . I’ll only say that he was captured in 1971 and thankfully released in 1973. This book prompted me to search for him online. It appears that he stayed in the Army and then after retirement went on to the private sector. I hope he has had a peaceful, happy life.
I received an advanced copy of this book from St. Martin's Press through NetGalley.
This is my first read by Kristin Hannah and I adored it. Set in the 1970s, it is about Ernt Allbright, a man who returns home to Seattle after being a POW in the Vietnam War. He is now a changed man, suffering sleepless nights, flashbacks, nightmares and volatile in his behaviour. PTSD was an undiagnosed condition at the time but it ravaged Ernt's life and that of his wife, Cora, and his 13 year old daughter, Leni. The Allbright family used to have good times, but now Leni hears the fights and conflict between her parents. Ernt struggles to hold down a job and their moves makes Leni long for a sense of stability. When Ernt inherits a cabin and land in Alaska from a dead soldier, he pleads with Cora that this will be the making of him and them, they could live off the land and be free of the pressures that they have been living under. Driven by this hope, they sell up and buy a rickety old VW van and set off for their adventure in The Great Alone, having little idea as to what awaits them and just how ill prepared they are for it. Alaska takes no prisoners, it has a majestic, harsh, awe inspiring beauty but its wilderness and wildlife is a cruel and unforgiving testing ground for those who make their home there.
The Allbrights arrive in remote Kaneq, Alaska, shocked by the state of the tiny dilapidated cabin and taken aback by all that needs doing and facing a desperately steep learning curve. Without the small community rallying together to help the family they would not survive the bitter, brutal Alaskan winter and the hardships that are to follow. They stock up on supplies, working the land in preparation. However, Ernt's condition worsens, exacerbated by alcohol. He takes out his rage and temper on Cora and the tiny home becomes a place of darkness and domestic violence. Leni learns to read the signs and triggers that foretell when Ernt is going to lose it and you cannot help but feel for her and Cora. Mother and daughter have a close relationship giving them the emotional strength to endure the unbearable. Leni finds solace in books, something I completely understand and relate to. She forms her first friendship with Matthew and begins to grow roots in the community. The community prove to be an invaluable support to Cora and Leni such as the inimitable and capable Marge and Tom Walker. The angry Earl rails against the injustices of life, politics and institutions, grieving over the loss of his son. As the years go by, Leni is changed and shaped by the tragedies and hearbreak she faces,
Kristin Hannah has written a beautifully detailed and emotionally affecting novel that is both compelling and gripping. She captures the twin threats posed the Alaskan environment and the home ripped asunder by the dangerous Ernt. Hannah's greatest achievement though is the characters she creates and the in depth development that takes place. This is Leni's story, the burdens she grows up with, her emotional bond with her mother, and her search for identity and roots. Its a a tale of love and hope despite the battering that life can give. It is remarkably instructive on the cost, consequences and damage of war on families and the suffering that ensues. A brilliant read that I will not forget and recommend highly. Many thanks to St Martin's Press for an ARC.
“And you,” Large Marge said. “What’s your story, missy?”
“I don’t have a story.”
“Everyone has a story. Maybe yours just starts up here.”
I was on the look-out for a novel set around quiet people and The Great Alone looked like one to fulfill that promise with “the harsh, uncompromising beauty of Alaska.” Plus, the mention of exploring PTSD in the father figure piqued my interest.
The bonus was when I started reading the book and became quickly swept up in Leni's life. She's thirteen when the novel begins, about to enter another new school since she and her parents move rapidly from place to place ("in the last four years, she’d gone to five schools"), and she's keen on drawing as little attention to herself as possible. My kind of girl.
Afterward, the storyline unspools easily as the family arrives in Alaska at the notice of a letter. Which leads to the stories set on surviving the wilderness of Alaska and the dangers lurking inside their home.
To get all I need off my mind, I'd like to share a list of things I took note of during my reading of The Great Alone:
(Spoilers from here.)
• I have to start off on the right foot by featuring this all-encompassing quote on Leni's bookish love (and mine, by default):
“Books are the mile markers of my life. Some people have family photos or home movies to record their past. I’ve got books. Characters. For as long as I can remember, books have been my safe place.”
• I loved reading about the vast landscape of “the wild, spectacular beauty” of Alaska's unfamiliar terrain. But I have to note the many, many descriptions… Personally, I'm not one for reading more than a couple of sentences on a character's surroundings or the peculiar weather outside. I enjoy it more when the author spends time on dialogue, instead of useless descriptions that my eyes gloss over as it is. None of it seemed to amount to much; the words just passed through me.
• On a brighter note, this leads me to talk about the characters. Three noteworthy relationships drove the story forward for me, including Leni with Matthew, Leni with Mama (aka Cora), and Large Marge with literally anyone because she's that dynamic. Also, major bonus points for having a character in here named Natalie.
“I followed a man up here. Classic story. I lost the man and found a life. Got my own fishing boat now. So I get the dream that brings you here, but that’s not enough. You’re going to have to learn fast.” Natalie put on her yellow gloves. “I never found another man worth having. You know what they say about finding a man in Alaska—the odds are good, but the goods are odd.”
This a classic example of "How can I become so invested in a character by the end of the paragraph?"
• My aesthetic is having Large Marge shut down entitled men. I'm still rattled by how she expertly handled Ernt Allbright's volatile, moody, and sharp-tempered self.
“Sit down, Ernt,” Large Marge said.
“Sit down or I’ll knock you down,” Large Marge said.
Dad sat down on the sofa beside Mama. “That’s not really the way to talk to a man in his own home.”
“You don’t want to get me started on what a real man is, Ernt Allbright. I’m holding on to my temper, but it could run away with me. And you do not want to see a big woman come at you. Trust me. So shut your trap and listen.”
• Speaking of which, I was counting down the pages till Ernt would be shown his way out of Alaska for good. He made everything and everyone hurt so deeply. I never trusted him to be alone with Cora. Winter is coming took on a whole new meaning with him in the picture. “You could always tell when Dad was gone. Everything was easier and more relaxed in his absence.”
So I was beyond thankful the moment the townsfolk intervened upon seeing his utterly abusive behavior towards his family. The magnitude of Large Marge and Mr. Walker stepping in to help Leni and her mom stayed with me ever since. Anyone daring to rightfully put Ernt in his place has my evergrowing admiration!
“You want to fight this battle?” Large Marge advanced, bracelets clattering. “If this young woman misses a single day of school, I will call the state and turn you in, Ernt Allbright. Don’t think for one second I won’t. You can be as batshit crazy and mean as you want, but you are not going to stop this beautiful girl from finishing high school. You got it?”
“The state won’t care.”
“Oh. They will. Trust me. You want me talking to the authorities about what goes on here, Ernt?”
“You don’t know shit.”
“Yeah, but I’m a big woman with a big mouth. You want to push me?”
In the wake of those words, I’ve never loved a character more than Marge Birdsall. Showing Cora and Leni that they have a support system around them was a grandiose moment.
I felt it even more acutely after having watched the Jo Wilson centric episode in Grey's Anatomy, focusing on domestic abuse.
• Which brings me to my next point: The perceptive connection that bonds mother and daughter together like peas in a pod. “Two of a kind.” It was both agonizing and admiring to see them stick so fiercely by one another.
“Mama was Leni’s one true thing.”
They had the kind of relationship that required the simplest measure: “One always knew when to be strong for the other.” It was refreshing to see such an allied bond present between Cora and Leni.
“I’m your friend.”
“You’re thirteen. I’m thirty. I’m supposed to be a mother to you. I need to remember that.”
• Which leads me to my favorite point in the book: The exhilarating rush of giddy, young love shared between Leni and Matthew in 1978. I loved this part of the book so much, I can't bear to shorten it on my note. I haven't felt such fierce dedication to a literary couple in months and months. All this time I was seeking for a book that would just get me when it came to those first signs of infatuation; The Great Alone did it so right.
“Leni couldn’t help thinking how small they were in this big dangerous world, just kids who wanted to be in love.”
I went through all the stages with Leni, from seeking a friend to share her secrets and longings and bookish love with, to become so easily swept up in the intoxicating head rush that is all grown-up Matthew Walker. He got her like no one else did.
“She made lists in her head of things she wanted to say to him, had whole conversations by herself, over and over. ”
I actually ached when Leni and Matthew were separated for pages at a time because of circumstances beyond their measure. He was our light in the brutal darkness of Alaska.
“Night after night, week after week, she lay in her bed, missing Matthew. Her love for him—a warrior, hiking mountains, crossing streams—strode into the wild borderlands of obsession.
Near the end of July, she began to have negative fantasies—him finding someone else, falling in love, deciding Leni was too much trouble. She ached for his touch, dreamed of his kiss, talked to herself in his voice.
I can feel the pain oozing out of this text.
But my most cherished moment came back when she first realized the switch in her mind:
“It didn't take Leni long to know that she was in trouble. She thought about Matthew constantly. At school she began to study his every move; she watched him as she would a prey animal, trying to glean intent from action. His hand sometimes brushed hers beneath the desk, or he touched her shoulder as he passed by her in the classroom. She didn’t know if those brief contacts were intentional or meaningful, but her body responded instinctively to each fleeting touch. Once she’d even risen from her chair, pushed her shoulder into his palm like a cat seeking attention. It wasn’t a thought, that lifting up, that unknown need; it just happened. And sometimes, when he talked to her, she thought he stared at her lips the way she stared at his. She found herself secretly mapping his face, memorizing every ridge and hollow and valley, as if she were an explorer and he her discovery.”
Scouring my neverending notes for a scene that captures the easygoing nature between the two was quite tough, but then I found this:
“But in her mind, he was Matthew, the fourteen-year-old kid who’d showed her frogs’ eggs and baby eagles, the boy who’d written her every week. Dear Leni, it’s hard at this school. I don’t think anyone likes me … And to whom she’d written back. I know a lot about being the new kid in school. It blows. Let me give you a few tips …
This … man was someone else, someone she didn’t know. Tall, long blond hair, incredibly good-looking. What could she say to this Matthew?
He reached into his backpack, pulled out the worn, banged-up, yellowed version of The Lord of the Rings that Leni had sent him for his fifteenth birthday. She remembered the inscription she’d written in it. Friends forever, like Sam and Frodo.”
*cries actual tears of joy* It's scary to put on paper, but they changed something within me. The state of utter fragility and vulnerability that their love put them in stopped me cold and made me think twice of its power.
As I read, I was reminded of this tentative song I recently discovered by mxmtoon.
• So you could only imagine my devastation to the unexpected (supposed) ending of Matthew being hurt beyond repair when all he was trying to do was save Leni...
“I’m the reason he’s hurt. He tried to save me. It’s my fault.”
“He couldn’t do anything else, Leni. Not after what happened to his mom. I know my son. Even if he’d known the price, he would have tried to rescue you.”
I've never felt such visible pain and hurt and rage. My mind was so overrun with thoughts and emotions; I felt like I was in a zombie state when I dared to get up from the book. In the wake of all the hurt we went through with Leni, everything seemed so banal in the real world. Returning to the Outside felt like involuntary breaking off the rural spell we’d been under.
“A girl needs to be strong in this world.”
I just couldn't wrap my mind around the fact that I was supposed to move on like nothing happened after we left Matthew, unsure of what the future held for him. I was so damn invested in every single moment shared between Matthew and Leni; it hurt more than I could bear to merely think of him without her. So I was pretty much left numb after that. I honestly couldn't have cared less, reading about everything that occurred to the characters in the aftermath. All I wanted was justice for Leni's kind, grief-stricken Matthew.
“He’d been drowning for all of these years without her, and she was the shore he’d been flailing to find.”
In hindsight, I should've known who I was dealing with before entering the novel. After all, I did read The Nightingale two winters ago. And coupled with the fact that I read 400 pages of this newest release in a single day, my reading experience took quite the toll on me. What is fresh air? But as the saying goes "Hindsight is 20/20. Everyone has a clear view from the rearview mirror.”
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5 Stars for The Great Alone... Alaska. It’s 1974 and a family of three, including a father mentally traumatized by his service in the Vietnam War, move to Alaska to a forty acre plot of land left to him by a fellow soldier who never made it out.
Life there is so hard and very bleak. This story is fast paced, and riveting. The characters so beautifully brought to life. Such an atmospheric read, I am so happy that I was able to read this at a time when we have our own Arctic Blast going through here in Michigan.
Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for the opportunity to read this ARC!!