Genre: Historical Fiction, Fiction
Setting: 1974-1986 Alaska and Seattle
My Copy Came From: I purchased the hardback from Costco.
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Review: Riveting and emotional. I loved this book! The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah is a difficult but rewarding read. It is the story set in the 1970s, of a teen girl named Leni, whose father, Ernt, moves her and her mother, Cora, to the wilds of Alaska. This is true off the grid living, and there is nothing glamorous about it here. The Great Alone shows Alaska in all of its harsh beauty, and the setting is as much a character here as anyone.
Summer ended as quickly as it had begun. Autumn in Alaska was less a season and more an instant, a transition. Rain started to fall and didn’t stop, turning the ground to mud, drowning the peninsula, falling in curtains of gray. Rivers rose to splash over their crumbling banks, tearing big chunks away, changing course.
All at once, it seemed, the leaves of cottonwood trees around the cabin turned golden and whispered to themselves, then curled into black flutes and floated to the ground in crispy, lacy heaps.
Ernt was a POW during the Vietnam War, and he struggles with PTSD, and he is also an alcoholic and abuses his wife. There are intense scenes here of abuse, and there are sections that are difficult to read. There are also intense scenes of surviving in Alaska’s harsh environment. There are two especially harrowing scenes of wilderness survival, so be warned if you have problems reading intense wilderness survival scenes, or abuse scenes.
“Two kinds of folks come up to Alaska, Cora. People running to something and people running away from something. The second kind—you want to keep your eye out for them. And it isn’t just the people you need to watch out for, either. Alaska herself can be Sleeping Beauty one minute and a bitch with a sawed-off shotgun the next. There’s a saying: Up here you can make one mistake. The second one will kill you.”
While I loved the setting of The Great Alone, what truly made the book shine for me were the characters. I loved the character of Leni. Leni is strong, smart, and resourceful, and has a love of reading and photography. While Leni sometimes makes some truly bad decisions, where you’re shouting at the book “NO!!! Don’t do that!!!”, her actions felt real and honest, and not just as something she did to move the plot along. I couldn’t sense the author pulling the strings here, as so many times you can in a book, especially when there are plotlines that can hinge on certain character decisions.
Fear, Leni learned, was not the small, dark closet she’d always imagined: walls pressed in close, a ceiling you bumped your head on, a floor cold to the touch.
Fear was a mansion, one room after another, connected by endless hallways.
I also liked Cora, Leni’s mother. Cora is a compelling character. She struggles with Alaska at the beginning, but learns her way around the camp stove quickly. The big discussion point with Cora is that she willingly stays with the abusive Ernt. That complex relationship is explored here, with the reader seeing all the ugly in the relationship, and also the good times, too.
Another great character is Marge Birdsall, known as “Large Marge”, who is an ex-lawyer who runs the general store nearby. Marge is that character who always knows what to do and say, and always lends a helping hand.
There is romance here, as Leni falls in love with Matthew, a young boy her age. Their story is sweet and heartbreaking, and I loved their story, even if parts of it were a bit predictable. But, I honestly didn’t care too much about that because I was so invested in the characters.
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. There is no middle ground, no safe place; not here, in the Great Alone.
For we few, the sturdy, the strong, the dreamers, Alaska is home, always and forever, the song you hear when the world is still and quiet. You either belong here, wild and untamed yourself, or you don’t.
The story is a good one. You’ve got romance, wilderness, family drama, friendship, a strong mother-daughter relationship, a sense of community, and some super intense and suspenseful scenes. I could not put this book down and I highly, highly recommend it to those who enjoy great character dramas and to those who just love a good book. This is a book to read, re-read, and discuss. And those last closing paragraphs of the book? Perfection.
Bottom Line: Loved it. Quite simply, a great book.