Kristin Hannah is a master of toying with her readers’ emotions – in the best possible way, of course. Her ability to ensnare readers and make them invested in characters – established in The Nightingale and Winter Garden – has only been improved with this tale of survival in America’s last frontier, no matter the cost. Most enchanting of all is her ability to make Alaska itself a character.
The Great Alone is the story of Leni Allbright, her father, Ernt, and her mother, Cora. When Ernt, a Vietnam POW, decides to move his family off the grid, Leni finds herself transported to a new life in Alaska. The Allbright family moves to a remote village called Kaneq in 1974 to live on a parcel of land given to Leni’s father by a dead army comrade. Leni flourishes in her new home, but she soon learns that the danger is not only out in the wild: it is within her own home, in her father’s fragile mental state.
The chief aspect I loved about The Great Alone was that it read like a love letter. Books that double as love letters – be they addressed to places, people, or even universal experiences in life – can fill you with the same love the author imbues in the words, if they are skillfully written. The Great Alone is very skillfully written. For all its harsh conditions and endless nights, a stark beauty shines through the story. It made me feel like I was in Kaneq with Leni, braving the freezing conditions and witnessing the severe beauty by her side. Even when Leni battles the elements in the age-old man vs. nature story, I couldn’t help but appreciate the perfection of the setting Hannah had wrought. That is what a love letter to a place feels like: it leaves you in awe of that place.
Another strong point of The Great Alone is the characterization, chiefly that of Leni and her parents. Leni herself is a sympathetic character, weathering her parents’ toxic relationship, eking out a paltry love from her father and alternating between protecting and resenting her mother. Her parents are less simple to love, with all the faults and foibles of three-dimensional, adult characters. Her father, Ernt, is a Vietnam POW whose PTSD and unresolved paranoia – both untreated – cause him to veer between intense love and physical abuse toward his wife. Meanwhile, Cora constantly makes excuses for Ernt, employing the resilient hope and denial of abused women: that their abusers love them, and this time will be the last. It’s easy for the reader to be frustrated by Cora, but the noxious cycle of love and abuse is so deftly-written that she is also portrayed in a sympathetic light. The minor characters – Large Marge in particular – have full backstories and vivid personalities of their own.
The only issue I had with The Great Alone was the end, and how abruptly it came about. The resolution with Matthew struck me as unrealistic, though I have had the pleasure of shadowing physical and occupational therapists and I know miracles do happen. They’re rare, but they happen. I just found the way they were portrayed to be somewhat over-sentimental. Additionally, I’m not a fan of one of the major plot twists, but that doesn’t reflect badly on the author. It’s just a particular preference of mine.
All told, The Great Alone is a powerful story of fighting for survival when danger assaults you from both within and without. Leni goes from helping her family survive in a harsh land to helping her mother survive her father. In the end, she might have to survive on her own.