The Great Alone
By Kristin Hannah. St. Martin's Press, 2018. 440 pages. $28.99. Also available as a Kindle e-book and an audiobook.
A Vietnam veteran inherits a homesite on Kachemak Bay in 1974 and arrives to embrace the simple life with his wife and their 13-year-old daughter. That's the premise for "The Great Alone," told mostly through the daughter's experience of their early years together in a small, off-road community known as Kaneq and then across later time periods. The Alaska the family encounters is one of romantics and misfits, where "five out of every thousand Alaskans go missing every year" and the "winter was dark and cold and crazy-making."
"The Great Alone," Leni Allbright, the daughter, tells us, is what Robert Service called Alaska. The phrase actually references Canada's Yukon Territory, but Service and his poems become a touchstone for the young protagonist, and Alaska as a wilderness outpost of beauty and hardship is the setting around which the novel is built. ("The Great Alone" is also the title of a 2015 documentary film about musher Lance Mackey.)
Alaska readers may enjoy seeing places and events they know used in fictitious ways. Homer (circa 1974) is "the last outpost of civilization." The Homer Spit crooks into the bay, with "a few colorful shacks perched on stilts at the water's edge" and a Salty Dawg Saloon. There's an Otter Cove, a Tutka Bay and a pipeline that men leave town to work on.
Those same readers may not thrill to the tired tropes of dark winters driving men to drink and violence, snarling wolves chewing up the farm animals, people falling through river ice and into "crevices," and everybody wearing flannel and packing guns and knives. The "old-timers" have "few teeth and lots of stringy hair and hollowed-out cheeks."
Readers may shake their heads to read of a teenage girl barely making it across an ice-covered log over a river to hunt sheep alone in the mountains and then to easily pack out her hundred pounds of sheep "carcass." Or smile at the idea of a teacher leaving her class in the hands of that same girl because "an injured eagle needs help at the center in Homer." Another day the same teacher takes the students on her fishing boat to a cove where "Leni counted fifteen huge brown bears in the marshes, munching on the grass, pawing for fish in the stagnant water."
This is, however, the mythic Alaska that readers elsewhere apparently find riveting, and, as this review is being written, "The Great Alone" is No. 4 on the New York Times bestseller list, where it has been for nine weeks. Hannah is the author of a previous bestseller, "The Nightingale," and 20 other novels, and this new book has received a great deal of publicity, with film rights already sold. The author, who lives in the Pacific Northwest, has family connections to a Kenai River lodge and has herself "fallen in love with the Last Frontier," according to her acknowledgement page.
There are definitely elements in the book that will remind readers of other popular versions of Alaska — the reality television shows that feature homesteaders and remote living. As soon as the Allbright family arrives in Kaneq in May, everyone they meet tells them they have to get hunting, fishing, gathering and woodcutting, or else they'll never make it through the winter. If they don't shoot that hare, they'll go hungry. If they don't hurry up and "marinate" and smoke those salmon, they'll go hungry. There's a "compound" where hillbilly-types practice self-sufficiency for the end times and pass around jugs of moonshine. Then there's the conflict that arises when the wealthiest man in town wants to electrify and spruce it up, and others reject his modernity.
A more serious, and perhaps truer storyline in the book has to do with domestic violence and the friendships and strengths of women. Ernt, the war veteran father, was damaged by his time in Vietnam, where he was a prisoner of war, and is a paranoid, controlling, abusive, violent man as well as a poor provider and a drunk. (One hopes that the author isn't suggesting that such behavior is a natural result of war trauma.) Cora, the wife, holds the classic role of abused spouse who sees herself as the problem — she rationalizes that something she does, each time, invites the abuse — and is unable (or unwilling) to leave her abuser.
For readers who may not understand or accept the cycles of abuse and forgiveness and apology and abuse again, "The Great Alone" vividly and convincingly presents this reality. The fear, isolation and "walking on eggshells" timidness of the daughter is heartbreaking. When your loyalty is to your family, and when there are few resources available, who do you tell? Neighbors know; the women offer friendship and help, and they wait.
Alaska has a role in helping, too. There are hidden places under the trees where "shade fell in star-shaped patches between the strands of sunlight" and beaches where waves wash away worries. Leni thinks, "God, she loved this place; she loved Alaska's wild ferocity, its majestic beauty. Even more than the land, she loved the people to whom it spoke."
"The Great Alone," then — that beautiful and wild place in all our imaginations — is also a populated place. Leni, the survivor, has plenty to teach us about finding our way through whatever "wildernesses" we might be lost in, into love. That's a story we can all appreciate.