The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

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Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear;
While high overhead, green, yellow and red, the North Lights swept in bars? —
Then you’ve a hunch what the music meant…hunger and night and the stars.
– The Shooting of Dan McGrew by Robert W. Service

Kristin Hannah plumbs the depths of love–parental, marital, fraternal, teenage love that deepens, healthy, conflicted and dysfunctional–in her most recent novel. Her fans will be deeply satisfied with the portrayal of a young family braving the challenges of a remote corner of Alaska following the Vietnam War.

In 1974, 13-year-old Leni Albright is desperate for a place to belong. She, her mom, Cora, and father, Ernt, were happy, as she remembered, before he went to Vietnam, was shot down and captured. Without him, her mother fell apart, and Leni first understood her mother’s fragility. They drifted from town to town, job to job, finally settling in an Oregon commune.

When Ernt came home, Leni barely recognized him. “The handsome, laughing man of her memory had become moody, quick to anger and distant.” He hated the commune, so they moved and moved again. He couldn’t keep a job. He and Cora fought constantly.

When Ernt received news that a fallen war comrade had left him 40 acres and a cabin outside Homer, Alaska, it appears to be his salvation and the opportunity for a desperate new beginning. In Homer, Land’s End, the last outpost of civilization, they find a dilapidated cabin full of cobwebs, dust and animal excrement. No electricity, but, wonder of wonders, an outhouse. They also find the camaraderie and support of Homer’s citizens, including Large Marge, Natalie Watkins and Geneva Walker, strong and determined women who help clear the land, clean the cabin, and teach the family about gardening, animal husbandry, firearm skills, hunting and the never-ending and crucial preparation for winter.

Life on the edge of civilization is difficult, and as winter approaches and daylight dwindles, Leni and Cora cope with Ernt’s deteriorating mental state. Leni begins school, forging a bond with Matthew Walker. Five years pass, and the two seniors are graduating. Ernt refuses to allow Leni to attend the party the changing town is throwing for the grads. “Leni tried to see past his anger to the man Mama claimed he used to be, before Vietnam had changed him and Alaska’s winters had revealed his own darkness…When Dad looked at her, Leni saw what she saw so rarely in his eyes: love. Tattered, tired, shaved small by bad choices, but love just the same. And regret.”

No spoilers here. From the novel’s climax to its conclusion, the reader experiences the family’s rollercoaster of emotions and actions. Friends and family surround Leni and Cora, and even though it appears Hannah is leading her protagonist in one direction, she suddenly takes her down one new path after another. Hannah also draws from her own family’s knowledge of the challenges and rewards of living on the last frontier. In the 1980s, her parents co-founded what is now the Great Alaska Adventure Lodge, which operates in Sterling, Alaska, and gives guests a glimpse into the history of homesteading in the state and the strength of the women and men who worked the land, harvested the game and truly lived off the grid.

Sony’s TriStar Pictures preemptively purchased movie rights to The Great Alone; Elizabeth Cantillon of the Cantillon Company and Laura Quicksilver will produce the movie. The duo continues their relationship with Hannah as producers of The Nightingale, Hannah’s marvelous 2015 novel set in Nazi-occupied France, which was released last month. Hannah told The Hollywood Reporter about the reaction of her audiences to the news during a book tour, “When I say I have this all-female team, they just gasp and burst into applause. It’s time for a movie like this.”
In the last pages of the novel, the adult Leni writes in a newspaper article, “This state…is like no other. Here, where survival is a choice that must be made over and over…[and] you learn who you are…You learn what you will do to survive…That lesson, that revelation, as my mother once told me about love, is Alaska’s great and terrible gift. In the vast expanse of this unpredictable wilderness, you will either become your best self and flourish, or you will run away, screaming, from the dark and the cold and the hardship.”

Leni is a survivor, a dreamer, a citizen of America’s last frontier, who belongs there, wild and untamed, in the Great Alone. ■