Kristin Hannah’s latest novel, The Great Alone (2/2018), is set in 1974 in one of the most beautiful yet dangerous states in the union, Alaska. Ernt Albright, a Vietnam veteran and former POW, returns from war with a severe case of PTSD. He drinks too much, can no longer hold a job, and suffers from nightmares, depression, and anxiety, all of which darkness and changes in weather make much worse. He inherits a cabin and parcel of land on a remote Alaskan peninsula from a fellow POW who wasn’t lucky enough to return home. You would think the whole darkness and weather thing would be a massive read flag, but Ernt, always looking for the next ‘big idea’, moves his wife, Cora, and 13 year-old daughter, Leni, to Kaneq, Alaska, where they can live off the grid, hunt, grow their own vegetables, get away from the insanity (sky-rocketing gas prices, ugly war protests, college campus [Ted Bundy] disappearances) of the lower 48, and finally be free. This time, he assures them, will be different; he will be happy.
Thankfully, although woefully unprepared, the Albright family arrives in their VW bus during summer, and the tight-knit Kaneq community pitches in, helping them set up a smokehouse, plant a garden, providing valuable tips on how to survive the coming winter, and, more importantly, giving them the first true friendships they have had in a very long time. At first, things do get better for this broken family as they work hard together restoring the dilapidated cabin and tending the only land they have ever actually owned. There is nothing their new friends can do, however, to prepare them for the psychological effects of the coming ferocious Alaskan winter, ready or not. Cora and Leni’s worse fears came true when Ernt is unable to cope with the unrelenting darkness, ice fog, wind, and cold that descend upon their little slice of heaven. “Alaska herself can be Sleeping Beauty one minute and a bitch with a sawed-off shotgun the next,” says Large Marge, one of Kaneq’s most colorful and endearing characters. All of Ernt’s old demons come slinking back out of the shadows, and the Albrights are broken once more, only this time into even smaller pieces. Over time, they build their life in Alaska, every part of their existence dictated by the seasonal rhythm of preparation and sheer survival.
In the 1980’s, Hannah’s own family homesteaded and eventually operated an adventure lodge in Alaska, giving her first-hand knowledge of the magnificent yet treacherous Alaskan landscape. Her descriptions are breathtaking, leaving the reader in reverent awe one minute and ready to book a flight with Alaskan Airlines the next. Her characters are well-rounded, interesting, funny, and endearing, as well as despicable and infuriating. Told through Leni’s eyes, the story’s perspective evolves alongside hers as she grows from adolescent to young adult. She learns that family, relationships, and life in general are complicated and messy, even violent at times, more so for some than for others, but that a sense of home (whether you’re a native or not) can ground a person in a way that is almost medicinal.
I loved this book! It passed my fiction litmus test in that I now miss its characters as though they were real people and thought about the story long after I’d read the last page. Although I found some parts predictable, the story grabbed my attention early on, and I read way past my bedtime, finishing in two days. I envied the opportunity the Albright family had to escape ‘real life’ and build something of their own from scratch, even found myself wishing I could experience ‘living off the land’ – which is more than a little bit remarkable (and ironic) since, although I was born and raised in Colorado, I’ve always preferred a good art museum and/or theater to a scenic hike, and made up my mind when I turned 50 that I really don’t have to camp or fish anymore. I’ve only read two other novels by Kristin Hannah: Winter Garden, which has an Alaskan connection as well, and, of course, The Nightingale. I loved them both. After reading The Great Alone I’ve added her to my growing list of favorite authors. Firefly Lane is now on my ‘want to read’ list. I know I’ll be rereading The Great Alone at some point and will definitely be booking a flight to visit my brother in Alaska sometime in the near future.