I’ve been wanting to read a Kristin Hannah book since The Nightingale‘s publication. I thought I should start there even though I’ve got some issues with WWII historical fiction. But I never got around to it. When her new novel, The Great Alone, released earlier this year, I discovered that I was much more interested in reading about Alaska, and I finally found the time to pick up my first Kristin Hannah novel.
About the book: When Leni’s dad, a POW from the Vietnam war, finally returns home, he’s not the same. She was too young when he left to remember much of their life before the war, but she knows he’s struggling in the aftermath. He drinks a lot, he can’t hold a job, he moves the family from place to place. And then a buddy from the army leaves him a cabin in Alaska. Unprepared for the wilderness, Leni and her parents set off in their VW bus to learn how to start a new life off the grid. It’s immediately obvious that they lack most of the necessary skills for living off the land in a dangerous environment, but they’re willing to try. When the long, dark Alaskan winter sets in, however, they realize they have a lot to learn about Alaska, about survival, and about each other. Leni’s dad turns violent, her mom turns secretive, and Leni is caught in the middle of her parents’ destructive relationship.
“They lived on a piece of land that couldn’t be accessed by water at low tide, on a peninsula with only a handful of people and hundreds of wild animals, in a climate harsh enough to kill you. There was no police station, no telephone service, no one to hear you scream.”
The Great Alone was more than a story for me– it was a mood. This is a perfect winter read, but even with summer settling in I was completely immersed in the cold, harsh world of this Alaskan wilderness. Even though I have so little in common with Leni and her family, reading about their lives sent me back through many of my own most powerful memories. It was a book that made me feel, in more than a transient way about fictional characters. Few stories have left me reflecting on my own life so deeply.
However, I watched V. E. Schwab’s recent Oxford speech on fantasy literature in the midst of reading The Great Alone. This book is not fantasy, it’s adult contemporary/historical fiction. But some of Schwab’s comments about reading and writing apply to all genres, and one thing in particular related to my experience with The Great Alone. Schwab talks about seeing the writer’s hand while reading, seeing the constructive framework between an idea and its conveyance. Kristin Hannah is an author that shows her hand. Especially in the beginning of the novel, so many time and place details are stuffed into the story in ways that made me roll my eyes. Whole conversations and scenarios and opinions seemed constructed around the urge to mention 8-track tapes or bell bottoms or the fact that gas cost 55 cents. A few details– like Leni’s beloved polaroid camera, the family’s VW bus, Leni’s weird first-day-of-school outfit– feel like they have a place in the story. But many descriptions seem more like they came straight off a list of “iconic 70’s/80s objects for readers to recognize,” though they have absolutely no relation to the plot or even characterization. Friendships and enmities happen instantaneously, in just the right combination to cause further strife. Dreams have convenient real-life significance. Characters make dramatic use of their final breaths. The story is fantastic, but its seams are visible.
The narration style also seemed an odd choice to me. The narrator utses third-person perspective, but it narrows in so closely on Leni’s point of view that Cora and Ernt are often referred to as Mama and Dad, which made being inside Leni’s head and still seeing her described as “Leni” rather than “I” a little awkward at times.
“Leni knew how dangerous the outside world was. The truth was that the biggest danger of all was in her own home.”
Another struggle for me in The Great Alone was Leni’s mom. My hatred of her had nothing to do with the fact that she chose to stay in an abusive relationship, that she might have goaded her husband into hurting her, that she kept coming back to him after he did. Those things I could understand. What I could NOT stand about Cora was the way that she tried to make Leni adhere to the same abusive life. It goes beyond making excuses for her husband. She is actively telling Leni to lie about what is happening at home, to be careful around Ernt, not to set him off. She makes Leni her confidant, and traps her in that existence where they are both afraid and stifled and victimized in their own ways. Cora puts herself and the relationship that she knows is dangerous ahead of her daughter. She wants them to be “two peas in a pod,” apparently by pulling Leni deeper into her trouble instead of following Leni’s advice to escape it. She says things like this:
” ‘Please, Leni, think about me instead of yourself.’ “
I loathed Ernt, of course, as much as I could through his PTSD, but it was Cora who really got under my skin. Ernt was the obvious threat, the danger Leni shouldn’t have had to worry about, but at least she could identify that problem. And in the meantime, Cora quietly poisons Leni by telling her she needs to love her dad despite what he does to his family. Maybe even because of it: “he just loves us too much.”
But everything Cora lacks, Leni makes up for. She is the strongest female character I’ve read all year. She loves the hardest, she stands up when she’s knocked down, she takes what life throws at her, and she survives. She doesn’t let the world make her bitter, though she has plenty of reason for pessimism and depression and hatred. When planted in Alaska, she becomes an Alaskan.
“If you’ve learned anything from your mother and what happened, it should be this: life– and the law– is hard on women. Sometimes doing the right thing is no help at all.”
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had a great time with this book. Kristin Hannah’s writing style isn’t my favorite, but once I got into the flow of things that was easier for me to overlook. And I think I’ll try to overlook it again, while I read The Nightingale. I do still have that one waiting on my shelf, and even though WWII historical fiction is not my cup of tea, I liked The Great Alone enough to give Kristin Hannah at least one more try.
- If you love the Alaskan atmosphere of The Great Alone, and the way that it becomes a character of its own, you should check out Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves. This book explores the secluded beauty of northern Minnesota, which is distinct in its own ways but does share some similarities to Alaskan climate. The main character is a girl much like Leni who begins babysitting for her only neighbors in the isolated woodland, and gets dragged into their tragedy before she is old enough to understand what is happening.
What’s your favorite historical fiction book or era to read about?
The Literary Elephant