The Great Alone: 2018's First Book of the Year Nominee

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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:

     Leni felt edgy, too.  She was the new girl at school, just a face in the crowd; a girl with long hair, parted in the middle, who had no friends and walked to school alone.
     Now she sat on her bed, with her skinny legs drawn up to her flat chest, a dog-eared copy of Watership Down open beside her. Through the thin walls of the rambler, she heard her mother say, Ernt, baby, please don’t. Listen…and her father’s angry leave me the hell alone.
     They were at it again. Arguing. Shouting.
     Soon there would be crying.
     Weather like this brought out the darkness in her father.

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:

     It hadn’t always been this way. At least that’s what Mama said. Before the war, they’d been happy, back when they’d lived in a trailer park in Kent and Dad had had a good job as a mechanic and Mama had laughed all of the time and danced to “Piece of My Heart” while she made dinner. (Mama dancing was really all Leni remembered of those years.)
     Then Dad got drafted and went off to Vietnam and got shot down and captured. Without him, Mama fell apart; that was when Leni first understood her mother’s fragility…
     When Dad had finally come home, Leni barely recognized him. The handsome, laughing man of her memory had become moody, quick to anger, and distant. He hated everything about the commune, it seemed, and so they moved. Then they moved again. And again. Nothing ever worked out the way he wanted.

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:

     The sudden wildness in his eyes, the showing of the whites, scared Leni. She took a step backward…
     “It’s the weather,” Mama said, lighting a cigarette, watching him drive away. Her beautiful skin looked sallow in the headlight’s glow, almost waxen.
     “It’s going to get worse,” Leni said. “Every day is darker and colder.”
     “Yeah,” Mama said, looking as scared as Leni suddenly felt. “I know.”
 Click Image to Buy now or pick up at your local Library or bookstore

Click Image to Buy now or pick up at your local Library or bookstore

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.

 Click Image to Buy now or pick up at your local Library or bookstore

Click Image to Buy now or pick up at your local Library or bookstore

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.

 Click Image to Buy now or pick up at your local Library or bookstore

Click Image to Buy now or pick up at your local Library or bookstore

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