“Did adults just look at the world and see what they wanted to see, think what they wanted to think? Did evidence and experience mean nothing?”
This is just one of the questions Leni Allbright poses in “The Great Alone,” by Kristin Hannah, a sprawling story about love, loss and survival not only in relationships but also in the extraordinary wilds of Alaska.
Ernt Allbright comes home from the Vietnam War a changed man and desperate to outrun his memories of being a POW. His wife Cora and daughter Leni have learned to navigate this new, volatile personality by just going along – literally. The book starts with Leni bemoaning what it’s like to always be the new kid in class because they are constantly moving around.
Ernt learns a former war buddy left him land in Alaska so he eagerly uproots the family one more time to escape a country he feels is on the brink of collapse. The move is supposed to placate Ernt’s burgeoning Armageddon mentality, but when the family arrives they learn a hard truth.
“You are out here in the wilds, girls. This 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. You need to know how to shoot and kill to feed yourselves and keep yourselves safe. You are not the top of the food chain here.”
They hear this on their second day from their neighbor, Large Marge. But there’s another warning that Leni and Cora hear, and something Large Marge won’t know about until much later: what will this new existence do to the violent, alcoholic, PTSD suffering Ernt?
Our narrator through this journey is teen Leni Allbright. Leni is a quiet, book-loving teenager who just wants to have real friends and a normal family life but instead is plopped down in the middle of nowhere and expected to live in a ramshackle (at best) cabin with an outhouse. Leni is spirited and thoughtful and everything you want in a heroine.
Besides Large Marge, there is a full cast of characters in their close-knit community. There’s Tom Walker, the town’s wealthiest resident, and Mad Earl, the town’s craziest resident. Ernt falls in with Mad Earl and his doom-and-gloom rantings and ends up hating Tom with an unbelievable passion. So naturally, Leni ends up falling Tom’s son, Matthew.
As Leni navigates her parents’ toxic relationship, we root for her to see the truth and come out on top. She and Matthew become tightly bound together at the same time Cora and Ernt’s relationship unravels. By the end, Ernt has seemingly left sanity behind and Leni and Cora must fend for themselves.
There is so much to love about this book. Leni is likeable and sympathetic and her jump from book-shy teen to hunting wilderness woman is believable. I am supposed to understand Ernt and his behavior in relation to his war experience but I don’t feel Hannah wrote him in a way to make that happen. Even when Ernt is supposed to be fun-loving and doing wonderful things with his family, there is an undercurrent of malice that made it difficult to feel compassion towards him. I’m also not sure I understand the “look the other way” attitude of the townspeople in regards to Cora’s obvious domestic abuse. They talk about how they rely on each other but failed miserably here. Oh and poor Cora! I hated the abuse and hated why she stayed but understood completely. Her motivations are clear, as sad as they may be.
The other main character in “The Great Alone” is Alaska itself. Hannah was able to draw directly from her own family history as her parents co-founded what is now the Great Alaska Adventure Lodge. The respect, love and fear she has for this wild and untamed state comes across clearly, not only in her beautiful descriptions of the land but through Leni as well. If Hannah could put a name on her feelings for Alaska, it would be called Leni Allbright.
“Everyone up here had two stories: the life before and the life now. If you wanted to pray to a weirdo god or live in a school bus or marry a goose, no one in Alaska was going to say crap to you. No one cared if you had an old car on your deck, let alone a rusted fridge. Any Life that could be imagined could be lived up here.”
Leni never imagined the life she ended up having in Alaska. Large Marge once told her that, “in Alaska, everyone is either running to something or running away from something.” Ernt was running away but Leni was running to, and the something was herself.
Thank you for your time!
Lynn Alexander is a recently published author and long-time book, food, cat and college football lover (Go Green!). Her career journey started in upstate New York, writing and recording commercials for radio. She moved to Venice, Florida to manage a restaurant which led her to Naples and Marco in 2002, where she currently books weddings and events for a local resort. Alexander is a Leadership Marco 2015 alum which fed her passion for history and learning. A butterfly at parties but a loner at heart, she loves nothing more than baking yummy desserts then retreating to a quiet corner to read.