The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah is the story of the Allbright family: Cora, Leni and Ernt. Ernt receives a letter that he has inherited a home and piece of land in Alaska, from a fellow soldier he was friends with during the Vietnam War. Cora and Leni reluctantly agree to go, in hopes for a new beginning. Ernt has some serious PTSD issues and is often abusive and angry and unable to keep a job. They are all hopeful Alaska will be a good change.
When the family arrives in Alaska they are immediately warned by the locals how hard it can be. Most people that move to Alaska don’t make it through the first winter. Fear is common sense. “If you’re tough enough, it’s heaven on earth. You have to know how to survive.”
Cora is warned by the other Alaskan women, “A woman has to be tough as steel up here. You can’t count on anyone to save you and your children. You have to willing to save yourselves. And you have to learn fast. In Alaska you can make one mistake. One. The second one will kill you.”
“They lived on a piece of land that couldn’t be accessed by water at low tide, a peninsula with only a handful of people and hundreds of wild animals, in a climate harsh enough to kill you. There was no police station, no telephone service, no one to hear you scream.” Winter was a big deal. Survival, could hinge on the smallest thing.” You have to be self-sufficient. You either belong here or you don’t.
Leni soon discovers that despite all the bad things, she belongs more in Alaska than she ever has anywhere else. She felt a great opening in her soul. She felt fully herself. She finally belonged.
Pretty soon, the cruel Alaskan winter arrives and Leni’s father gradually gets angrier and more abusive. Every day is darker and colder. “As winter pared their life away, the Allbrights were left with only each other. Every evening was spent together, hours and hours of night, huddled around the woodstove. They were all on edge. Arguments erupted over nothing. Worse than the weather was the confinement it caused.”
Leni’s father “looked ruined, tired, but present; in his eyes, she saw more love and sadness than should be able to exist in one human being. Something was tearing him up inside. It was the other man, the bad man, who lived inside of him and tried to break out in the darkness.”
For a while, Leni, like her mother, believed that her dad really was just sick and sorry. They thought that if they loved him enough, he would get better and it would be like before the war. It wasn’t long before Leni stopped believing that.
“The darkness and the cold and the isolation got inside my father in a terrible way, turned him into one of the many wild animals.” The war broke Ernt and no one could help him. “With no local police and no one to call for help. All this time, Dad had taught Leni how dangerous the outside world was. The truth was that the biggest danger of all was in her own home.”
Leni and her mother stick together to get through her father’s episodes. They are very close, strong for each other when they have to be, each other’s reason for living. Leni, “Whatever happened, she wasn’t ever really alone. She had her mama. Her childhood would always smell like sea air and cigarette smoke and her mother’s rose-scented perfume.”
As for Cora, she loved Ernt way too much to leave him. She felt like she couldn’t breathe without him. She longed for the man he was before the war. The book says a lot about the durability and lunacy of love and how it stays against all odds.
“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.”
“Wild. That’s how I describe it all. My love. My life. Alaska. Truthfully, it’s all the same to me. Alaska doesn’t attract many; most are too tame to handle life up here. But when she gets her hooks in you, she digs deep and holds on, and you become hers. Wild. A lover of cruel beauty and splendid isolation. And God help you, you can’t live anywhere else.”
I loved this book. Do not expect another “Nightingale.” This book is very different, but just as powerful and lovely.