Sunday, February 25, 2018
Book Review: "The Great Alone" by Kristin Hannah
Oh, man, this book.
In 1974, the world was turned upside-down, what with Vietnam, the gas crisis, Watergate, and so much more to cause people to feel unsettled. Thirteen-year-old Leni Allbright knew these feelings all too well, but more because her father, Ernt, a Vietnam POW, has never quite been the same since he returned from being captured during the war. Leni watches the almost all-consuming love her parents have for each other, which is exacerbated by the times when her father "just isn't right," suffering nightmares, mood swings, and violent rages which have caused them to pick up and move several times over the last several years.
"One thing every child of a POW knew was how easily people could be broken."
After Ernt loses another job, he makes an impulsive decision: he is going to move his family to a small town in Alaska, and settle on some land left to him by a fellow soldier. The thought of moving somewhere so remote, so dangerous, so unknown, is tremendously frightening, but Leni's mother, Cora, has never abandoned her husband no matter what he has done, so she's willing to follow him into the wilderness, in the hopes this may be the fresh start he needs.
When they arrive, they are all bewitched by the immense beauty of Alaska in summerthe vivid colors, the sounds of animals they had never seen in person before, the feel of living off the land. Yet they know that winter is not that far away, and they've heard that many people don't even survive one winter in Alaska. With limited money and supplies, they prepare as best they can, but they are buoyed by the generosity of the community they've moved into, despite Ernt's resentment that others are providing for his family.
"Alaska isn't about who you were when you headed this way. It's about who you become. You are out here in the wild, girls. That isn't some fable or fairy tale. It's real. Hard. Winter will be here soon, and believe me, it's not like any winter you've ever experienced. It will cull the herd, and fast. You need to know how to survive."
Winter pushes the Allbrights to their limits, and Ernt's mental state begins to deteriorate more and more. Leni realizes that her father is dangerous and she can't understand why her mother continues to stay with him, to even provoke his moods somewhat, and yet refuse to leave when things get bad. And they get bad, with increasing frequency. But Leni knows that she cannot leave her mother, or she might not be able to save her.
As Leni gets older, she becomes less forgiving of her father's moods and her mother's refusal to help them escape. When the community's residents get divided between those who want to see change and modernity brought to the wilderness, and those who prefer living off the grid and fending for themselves, Ernt's resentment grows, drawing his entire family into a dangerous struggle, one from which escape is becoming increasingly unlikely.
The Great Alone is the story of survival, not just in the harsh Alaskan wilderness, but within your own lives. It's a book about confronting your fears and realizing how strong you are, of feeling the need to protect those you love from pain or hurt no matter what the sacrifices you must make in exchange, and how the things we most want to say are the hardest to verbalize. This is a book about courage, the power of love and friendship, and an unshakable bond between parent and child.
I've never read any of Kristin Hannah's books before, and I don't know why that's the case, but this book blew me away. The story is tremendously compelling, and even though it has familiar elements, Hannah's storytelling made it feel fresh. There is such a poignancy in this book, and I'm not ashamed to say it wrecked me emotionally at times, but I kept reading and reading and just couldn't stop. Thanks to a cold, rainy Sunday, I read the entire book in one day, but now I'm sad it's over.
Is this predictable? Perhaps a bit. But this is an exceptional story populated by complex, fascinating characters and vivid imagery that made you feel you were experiencing the beauty and harshness of Alaska. Boy, did I love this.
"In the vast expanse of this unpredictable wilderness, you will either become your best self and flourish, or you will run away, screaming, from the dark and the cold and the hardship. There is no middle ground, no safe place; not here, in the Great Alone."
I have four words for you: Read this book now.