After reading my seventh Kristin Hannah novel, I think she just keeps getting better. I didn’t think she could top her latest best-selling historical fiction novel, “The Nightingale,” but I think she has with “The Great Alone.”
Hannah has a family connection and great love for Alaska. By setting her newest novel there she has made the Alaskan territory a character of its own.
In “The Great Alone” Ernt Allbright has come back a changed man after his time in Vietnam. It’s the early 1970s and the nation is trying to understand the vets who have come home, the protesters, the hippies, and the fact that women are being kidnapped and murdered. It’s a dangerous time and Ernt isn’t adjusting well.
When he finds out his veteran buddy has left him a home and land in Alaska, Ernt believes this is just the change his family needs. He packs up his wife, Cora, and teenage daughter, Leni, into a VW bus and starts driving north. Cora and Leni figure that this is just another harebrained idea and they will be back home in a couple weeks, yet also hopeful that this time will be different and Ernt will finally get back to his old self before the war.
Hannah’s edgy description of Ernt and his nightmares, his hatred for government and distrust of others gives readers a view into a time when there was little help for the vets who came home to a much different life than they had been living. Cora is deeply in love with Ernt and blind to his outbursts and assumes that she can always calm him. Leni, a typical teenager, is mostly worried about what life in Alaska will be like and if she will make any friends. When they arrive at the homestead, it isn’t at all what they had expected, and the work it will take to make it livable is outshined by the work it will take them from day one to start planning on how they’ll survive the coming winter.
The reader can visualize the stark beauty of Alaska through the vivid descriptions Hannah paints on the pages. You can tell she has a deep love for the land, the culture, and the people of Alaska and describes them as loving, hardworking, and tenacious. When winter hits, no matter what the temperature is outside, you’ll feel the chill as you turn the pages.
This story is full of sadness and despair. You feel a bit voyeuristic as you read and visualize Cora and Leni struggling with Ernt’s demons. Your heart breaks when grief takes over their close-knit community. Just when you think things are looking up for the Allbright family, another tragedy sets them back, and your frustration builds as Cora and Leni don’t seem to be able to do anything to change their fate. Your emotions will be all over the place jumping from hope to relief to heartbreak to fear. Then finally, the sun shines again and you have to believe these characters are going to find a way to survive.
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It’s a hefty novel at more than 400 pages, but you won’t notice as you follow the Allbrights’ lives through the ’70s and ’80s. My only negative would be that the final few chapters felt a bit rushed and trite.
I was absolutely enthralled with the setting, the characters and Hannah’s beautiful writing. I tend to miss reading about the ’70s through my book choices, but this one opened my eyes to an important time in our history and a part of our country that is dangerously beautiful.