If an author has done his or her job right, there’s something in their novel that drives the story. Something that makes people continue to turn the page. Something that the reader thinks about long after they’ve closed the book.
In The Great Alone, the latest offering from Kristin Hannah (who has written such bestsellers as The Nightingale and Firefly Lane) the “something” is Alaska. Even when Hannah’s latest storyline was so depressing that I wasn’t always sure if I wanted to continue, the Alaskan wilderness kept calling me back.
It’s 1974, and Ernt Allbright returns home from Vietnam after living in a POW camp for a few years. His wife Cora, the daughter of wealthy parents who married Ernt against their will, recognizes immediately that he is a changed man. The man with whom she fell in love and for whom she defied her parents is now sullen,unstable, and dangerously volatile. Their 13-year-old daughter Leni, can’t remember the father who wasn’t so unpredictable.
Feeling the need for a change, Ernt moves his family to a remote area of Alaska, where he hopes to homestead and live off the land. Cora agrees, optimistic that a change is necessary to save the family. It works for a while, but eventually Ernt’s mental instability takes over and things take a nosedive.
The Great Alone is a story of neediness, friendship, and dysfunctional love. It is taut with tension and anger. The incredibly difficult living conditions in this small Alaskan town create a dependence on each other that can benefit or wreck someone as emotionally fragile as Ernt Allbright.
I’ve never been to Alaska. I don’t know if a small town in remote Alaska today would look like it did in this book. While the story is unendingly depressing –ironically, nearly laughingly so – I found myself continuing to turn the pages because I was intrigued by the notion of living in such a wilderness. People relied on one another because, particularly during the winter, there were no others on whom to rely. It’s an intriguing background story for a novel.
I find Hannah’s novels to be somewhat predictable and her characters fairly one dimensional; nevertheless, I will give The Great Alone a weak huzzah for its important topic and setting. If you like Hannah’s other novels, you are likely to enjoy this one as well.