Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Great Alone

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
St. Martin's Press: 2/6/18
eBook review copy; 448 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9780312577230

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah is a very highly recommended coming of age story and portrait of a family and a time in history. 

It is 1974 when her father, Ernt Allbright, loses his job yet again, and decides he will move his family, wife, Cora, and daughter, Leni, north to the untamed wilderness of Kaneq, Alaska, where Ernt  has inherited his deceased buddy's cabin and land. Thirteen-year-old Leni is used to be uprooted and moved at her parent's whim. Her father Ernt is a former POW and according to her mother, Cora, he came home a changed man, full of anger and nightmares. Even with the violence, Cora will do anything for Ernt. Now Leni has no choice but to head north with her angry father and learn to live off the grid. All she can do is hope she will find a place to fit in and that Alaska will calm her parent's unhealthy, passionate and volatile relationship.

At first Alaska seems to be the answer to her family's dreams.  Kaneq is made up of fiercely independent, strong people who all have a before and after story. Alaska changes Leni. She falls in love with the land, the way of life, and Matthew. The community believes in bartering and they pitch in to help the Allbrights prepare during the long summer days for the harsh, unrelenting winter. As Large Marge tells them, "There's a saying: Up here you can make one mistake. The second one will kill you." But that saying is referring to the harsh, unforgiving wild nature of the land. For Cora and Leni the real danger as winter approaches and darkness increases is Ernt. The darkness brings out his nightmares, paranoia and violence, especially toward Cora. Soon locals have to step in and find a way to keep Cora and Leni safe, but it is a tenuous solution at best.

The Great Alone is a wonderfully engaging novel and will hold your rapt attention from beginning to end. The writing is exceptional. Hannah depicts the violent effect of of Ernt's PTSD on the family and his toxic relationship with Cora, while expertly weaving into the story events from the 1970's and the attitudes from the decade. All the characters in this admirable novel, including the state of Alaska, are unique, deftly drawn and expertly developed. Leni is a wonderful character.

This is a perfect stay-up-way-too-late reading book, which makes it a wonderful choice for long winter nights (or overnight at the airport). The plot is complex and layered, like life itself. Hannah perfectly describes the essence of the relationship between mother and child, of love and loss, of sacrifice and regret. It is also an emotional novel. There was a point when I wondered where else Hannah could take us, what was left to experience, and she surpassed my expectations with this insightful and intelligent novel. This is one of the best novels I've read this year.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of St. Martin's Press.

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