Kristin Hannah has written numerous bestselling books. Her 2015 release, The Nightingale, reached even new literary heights, and the movie is set to be released this August. If you haven’t read The Nightingale, you need to read it as soon as you can; new books from this year can wait.
This February (on my birthday, in fact, the 6th) her new novel, The Great Alone, will be released. I just finished an advanced readers edition and want to tell you why you should not miss this book; in fact, this book will be in discussion for book of the year eleven months from now (I won’t reveal any spoilers).
Most of The Great Alone takes place in the nineteen-seventies. The book is the story of the Allbright family. The family consists of Leni and her parents, Cora and Ernt. We meet Leni on the first page, along with the central tension of the novel:
With simple language, the author has deftly laid out the story right there on page one. Two pages later, she completes the underlying story that will carry the reader through this complicated, emotional, and conflicted novel:
So now you understand the family dynamic. All we need is a location for the story to unfold. The Allbrights will receive that through a letter from a man whose son Ernt served with in Vietnam: Alaska. It is there, in that wide, wild land full of darkness and danger, community and isolation, that this story of love and survival will take hold of you.
Kristin Hannah does a remarkable job creating an Alaska vast and deadly and still full of wonder and beauty. The supporting characters in the book can be as large as the land itself; the Allbright’s neighbors, the Walker family, are well-written, and their story is complex and nimbly interwoven with the Allbright’s; Large Marge is nothing less than a force of nature and will be a reader favorite; and the off-the-gridders, the conspiracy-theorist group, add an element of entanglement and realism that mirrors sectors of our modern lives.
The Allbrights do find a home in Alaska. Ernt Allbright finds people who are like-minded and listen to him as well as a largeness of space which lets him feel less trapped. Leni learns hunting from her father and self-reliance from necessity which gives her the confidence and strength she had been lacking. And Cora, Cora learns how weak love can make you, and the strength it can give you to do anything to protect it.
The family finds a routine in Alaska. They learn how to survive there and make a place for themselves. But underneath it all, the cancer of domestic violence is spreading. All the dark, the isolation, the constant fight for survival, takes its toll:
There is a certain chilling beauty to that passage, both in the description of the mother and the connection of the father’s temperament to the weather. In places, the reflection of the violence and fury in the natural world in the Allbright father reminds me of Wuthering Heights. I haven’t read that book in decades, but I remember the natural world being a mirror to the character’s internal struggles in that book as well as in this one.
This book will grab you and twist your insides. You will get angry; you’ll feel frustration, pity, and love. I was surprised at how tangled my emotions were toward the mother, Cora. I got so mad at her and wanted to wake her up, and yet there were times I just wanted to hug and soothe her. The toll love takes in her life is tremendous. Leni you’ll cheer for, but there is a sadness within her that will always give you pause.
Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale is a five-star book. The only thing that bugged me about that book was the neatly-tied, pretty ribbon at the story’s conclusion. It and Anthony Doer’s All the Light We Cannot See were side-by-side stellar historical fiction about the WWII period: I preferred how Doer let his story have its own ending rather than making sure it ended in a way to appease readers. (I also think I may be in the minority with that preference.) The Great Alone had a little of that same issue for me, as well as one twist toward the end which caught me by surprise, but then unraveled too easily. It made the final twist feel unnecessary and a little like a late addition to the novel.
Still, this will be one of the books of the year. It is a wonderful book. Most writers will spend their life trying to write one book this good and fail. Thank you, Kristin Hannah, for giving up law and turning to writing. Readers, enjoy.
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