Kristin Hannah’s newest novel, The Great Alone (St. Martins Press, 2018) is set in Alaska and the landscape is a metaphor for the treacherous and very dangerous lives lived by Ernt Allbright and his wife Cora and daughter Leni. The book opens in 1974. Ernt Allbright is a survivor – a Vietnam POW who has returned from war broken. His nightmares wake the family, his rages frighten them into compliance, and his paranoia can only be placated by wide, empty, open spaces. Ernt has trouble holding a job. His drinking doesn’t help. After losing yet another job, he learns that he has inherited a cabin and 40 acres in a small town in Alaska, a place still wild in 1974, though tourists and cruise ships are beginning to encroach on the peace, quiet, and reclusiveness that Ernt craves.
Fans of Hannah’s 2015 Nightingale will find this a different read. Told from the perspective of Leni, who matures into a 17-year-old by the middle of the book, The Great Alone reads much like a young adult novel – full of the longings, love stories, and loyalties of a teen. Cora, Leni’s mother lacks maturity – though she tries to be a good mother – she is a terrible role model for Leni in labors of love. Cora describes her relationship with Ernt like an addiction – saying they are each other’s heroin. And that is the only way to describe her dependency and inability to leave Ernt – even after he begins beating her, even after, in his paranoia, he forces Leni to get up in the middle of the night to test her, forcing her to assemble her rifle and load it, over and over, insisting she be able to complete the task faster or she will die.
The Alaskan landscape is beautifully rendered: its summer days of endless light, its frozen winters that can take a life in a matter of minutes, its glistening waters swimming with salmon and halibut. Hannah realistically portrays the danger of living in such a wild place. Large Marge, formerly a Washington DC lawyer who now runs the general store warns them, “There’s a saying. Up here, you can make one mistake. The second one will kill you.” Large Marge is one of several endearing characters who recognize Cora and Leni’s abusive situation and try to help them. Tom Walker, whose family founded the town, and whose wealth and influence infuriates Ernt, gets Ernt a job on the pipeline and thus provides a temporary safety net for the women while Ernt is away during the week earning a paycheck. But like all the other jobs, it doesn’t last and Ernt returns home angrier and more resentful than ever at “the man.” Eventually, most of the community turns away from Ernt because of his escalating violence. Only Mad Earl, a white supremacist survivalist drunk is on Ernt’s side, and as you can imagine, that does not go well.
To make matters worse, Leni falls in love with Matthew, Tom Walker’s son. Ernt forbids her to see him, but the couple sneaks away when they can, eventually getting caught with nearly murderous results. The love story between Leni and Matthew is at the heart of the novel. Leni recognizes the fatal attraction between her parents, and desires a different kind of relationship. She discovers a strength that belies her age through the hardships she encounters in the Alaskan wild, as well as through her relationship with Matthew.
“In the vast expanse of this unpredictable wilderness,” Hannah writes, “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.”
Even with 20 novels under her belt, it’s hard to follow The Nightingale, which sold four million copies. But Hannah’s fans will likely follow her anywhere – not even the wilds of Alaska will turn them away. My advice: just don’t expect another Nightingale, hunker down by the fire with The Great Alone, or take it with you on your next backpacking trip, you’ll be in good company.