|Title:||The Great Alone|
“Did you know there are a hundred ways to die in Alaska?”
In 1974 Ernt, Cora and Leni Allbright packed all of their belongings into a VW Camper and drove from Seattle to the village of Kaneq in Alaska where they had inherited a piece of land. Ernt Allbright who had fought in the Vietnam War and had been a POW (prisoner of war) during that time, was marked by an anger that always seemed to be simmering on the surface. Cora came from a wealthy family whom she felt never quite understood her, had fallen pregnant at the age of 17 and run away from home. Lenora ‘Leni’ was Ernt and Cora’s 13 year old daughter whose love of books and her Polaroid camera make her a fairly reliable narrator of this epic journey that spans several years in the beautiful and cruel land that is Alaska, also known as The Great Alone. It is through Leni that we observe the Allbrights’ and their attempt to fit in, not only with the survivalist way of life, but also with the scattered few who have chosen to make this harsh land their home.
When the Allbrights arrive in Alaska they are at first overwhelmed with the amount of preparation it will take to survive their first real Winter, but they quickly learn that even through all the isolation the small community in and around Kaneq are as close as family. Leni enrolls in the small local school and finally finds a friend in Matthew Walker, son of local businessman Tom Walker whose family have lived in Kaneq for generations. Cora befriends their neighbor and owner of the only store in town, Marge Birdsall who goes by the name ‘Large Marge’ and who becomes the Allbright’s greatest ally. Ernt however finds himself involved with the Harlan family living on the outskirts of town, and of society in general.
Four years on and the Allbrights have learned to live in Alaska, and have created a life for themselves. It is now 1978 and Leni and Matthew are in love and about to graduate from the local school. Matthew has plans to go to college, and wants Leni to join him. In the meantime Ernt has just become progressively meaner and more possessive and abusive towards Cora. The Walker family have plans to develop the town of Kaneq, and as Ernt is dead set against it he begins to isolate his family from the rest of the village. Consequently Cora seems to shrink away, whilst Leni chooses to rebel against her father’s tyranny.
As Ernt’s PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) becomes more prevalent within the story the dangerous winters that Alaska is infamous for are no longer the greatest threat to Cora and Leni’s existence. As the winters become colder and darker so too does Ernt’s condition and soon the novel shrinks away from merely surviving a cold climate, and veers closer to the overall loneliness and despair that comes with domestic violence.
This is a book that took me down two very distinct roads. As I crossed the highway into the unknown and the adventures of a family leaving behind civilization to live off the land in a cabin in the woods I was excited by the notion of this way of life. We read Leni’s accounts of learning to chop wood and build pens for animals and to hunt her own food, and there is a sense of nostalgia for a life never lived. Then we take the next road and Ernt’s violence and determination to completely control his family and keep them separated from others is a hard pill to swallow but also as accurate an account of domestic violence as is literally possible. It is this undercurrent of violence coupled with the constant threat of danger in an environment that is unforgiving to those that may make the smallest misstep that keeps the reader permanently anxious for these characters.
In so many ways Kristin Hannah’s novel is every bit the kind of book that will appeal to so many different readers. The human spirit, the harsh reality of nature, the notion of unconditional love and the nostalgia of a time now long gone are all that give this story the elements that make it a book that is worth reading again, and again. Personally this haunting tale will stay in my heart for a very long time if it ever leaves at all.