Leni is just thirteen when Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone begins. She’s the new girl in school, but she is used to that. Her father often loses his job and pulls up stakes chasing dreams of a different life, but he brings his ghosts everywhere he goes. He’s only been home from Vietnam a couple years. He was a prisoner and suffers from PTSD–undiagnosed, of course–it didn’t get added to the official roster of psychiatric diagnoses until 1980. Her mother is a beautiful woman whose fragile beauty hides inner strength, but her love for her husband is toxic and dangerous.
A friend from Vietnam who did not make it out left his cabin and land on Kenai Peninsula in Alaska to Ernt, Leni’s father. He’s excited by the chance to start again, with land and a home for his family, to live off the land, to be self-sufficient. It’s 1974, a year of turmoil with terrorism, civil unrest, nuclear brinksmanship, and a criminal president. People were afraid. Some of us might relate. Ernt thought the wilderness was a safer place for his family and when they arrived, he found a fellow paranoiac survivalist to feed his conspiracies–not that they needed feeding.
Alaska is a place that makes or breaks people. It made Leni, Cora, her mother, found hidden strength there, too, learning to subsist through growing and hunting their own food. It broke Ernt, whose trauma left him ill-suited for the months of darkness and isolation. Life gets even more complicated as the years pass and Leni’s friendship with her classmate Matthew deepens into love. Matthew is the son of a man her father hates with a murderous passion. Leni knows this is dangerous and may end in tragedy, but love is powerful and tempting.
The story makes a few jumps in time, from 1974 when it begins, to 1978, Leni’s senior year and to 1986 when the story closes–for all intents and purposes. There is an interview with one of the characters in 2009, a silly and extraneous addition.
This is a heart-wrenching story, thrilling and fascinating. The characters are so well-defined and rich. There’s Leni, smart, loving, and the heart of the story. There is her mother Cora whose great flaw is loving unwisely and too much. There is Ernt, her father, who loves his family but not well, not enough to put their welfare above his fears and trauma. Then there is Alaska, beautiful and magnificent, implacable and deadly, as complex a character as any person and certainly as important to the story. It seasons forming the rhythm of their lives and their troubles.
Hannah does an excellent job of showing the infuriating resistance many abused women have to the idea of leaving their abusers. She also makes clear the catch-22 abused women navigate, balancing the risk of abuse against the risk of leaving and inciting murderous fury. Hannah is very good at getting at human emotion, at developing characters we care about. Hell, we even care about Ernt–most of the time.
I only wish the ending were less complete. Hannah began her career writing romances and she has the romance author’s desire to tie things up with a bow. There is also a ridiculous police officer who has never heard of Miranda and a laughably bad courtroom scene complete with an absurdist bit of rector ex machina. I would advise Hannah to avoid any future legal plot elements. I can’t say exactly where I wish she had ended the story, but I wish she had left us with unknown possibilities.
I received an e-galley of The Great Alone from the publisher through NetGalley.