Book Review: The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

In her highly anticipated follow up to The Nightingale Kristin Hannah pulls from her family’s past as Alaskan homesteaders and delivers yet another stunning portrayal of feminine strength. The Great Alone follows Leni and her parents as they embark on the ultimate test of survival, where their every weakness is exploited and they must rise above else they sink into the Alaskan wilderness.

This state, this place, is like no other. It is beauty and horror; savior and destroyer. Here, where survival is a choice that must be made over and over, in the wildest place in America, on the edge of civilization, where water in all forms can kill you, you learn who you are. Not who you dream of being, not who you imagined you were, not who you were raised to be. All of that will be torn away in the months of icy darkness, when frost on the windows blurs your view and the world gets very small and you stumble into the truth of your existence. You learn what you will do to survive.

Leni’s father Ernt is a Vietnam veteran and P.O.W. who has returned to a world he doesn’t recognize and a society that will never understand his sacrifices. His struggles manifest as nightmares and violent outbursts which leave a palpable residual tension that infects the entire family. When a letter arrives from the family of a fallen comrade, Ernt grasps their offer like a lifeline—an abandoned cabin in the remote Alaskan outpost of Kaneq. Hoping this will be the salve for his wounds, Leni’s mother, Cora, agrees wholeheartedly and in no time at all the family is embarking on their newest adventure. However, they soon discover that Alaska does not bend to your will, you must alter yourself completely to endure all that it demands of you.

“This place is magic, kiddo. You just have to open yourself up to it. You’ll see what I mean. But it’s treacherous, too, and don’t you forget that. I think it was Jack London who said there were a thousand ways to die in Alaska. Be on alert.”

“For what?”

“Danger.”

“Where will is come from? The weather? Bears? Wolves? What else?”

Large Marge glanced across the yard again to where Dad and Natalie were felling trees. “It can come from anywhere. The weather and the isolation makes people crazy.”

Their only saving grace in the rough Alaskan terrain are the locals who take them under their accomplished wings and show them how to make a home, and a life, in the great alone. Leni settles in at the local schoolhouse where she meets the only other kid her age, Matthew, and they fall easily into a companionship that glitters with something more.

She hadn’t known until now how love could erupt into existence like the big bang theory and change everything in you and everything in the world. She believed in Matthew suddenly, in the possibility of him, of them. The way she believed in gravity or that the earth was round. It was crazy. Crazy. When he kissed her, she glimpsed a whole new world, a new Leni.

But as summer melts away and winter rears its icy head, dreams are cast aside for responsibilities and Leni is forced back into the confines of the cabin and the dangers that follow them no matter how far they run. Leni and Cora are beginning to discover that the promise of a new life, of healing, is just as fragile as Ernt’s emotional stability.

Dad’s intentions were good, but even so, it was like living with a wild animal. Like those crazy hippies the Alaskans talked about who lived with wolves and bears and invariably ended up being killed. The natural-born predator could seem domesticated, even friendly, could lick your throat affectionately or rub up against you to get a back scratch. But you knew, or should know, that it was a wild thing you lived with, that a collar and leash and bowl of food might tame the actions of the beast, but couldn’t change its essential nature. In a split second, less time than it took to exhale a breath, the wolf could claim its nature and turn, fangs bared.

What follows is an epic test of survival, a battle of wills against the dangers both within and beyond the front door. The unknown hazards of the expansive wilderness create an oppressive perimeter that threatens to suffocate Leni as her need for escape grows exponentially and it is only a matter of time before tragedy strikes. Yet, woven among the desolation is the myriad ways in which love can uplift; whether it be as a glimmer of hope or as the final straw that shatters your resolve and subsequently reveals your undiscovered strength.

The Great Alone is a raw, exhilarating coming-of-age story that proves it’s never too late to find your salvation. Hannah excels at two things: creating rich atmosphere that serves it’s own purposes in the story and illuminating the wellspring of strength present is every woman and The Great Alone exemplifies these talents.

They had come so far from their beginnings as two damaged kids, he and Leni. Maybe it had all happened the way it needed to, maybe they’d each crossed their oceans—hers of damaged love and loss, his of pain—to be here again together, where they belonged.

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A review copy of this title was provided by St. Martin’s Press.

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