(Kristin Hannah, St Martin’s Press, $29.99pb, ISBN 9781447286004, January 2018)
Hannah Kent is master in depicting heroines who withstand incredible adversity to become ultimately victorious in the game of life – the happy ever after. It is unfortunate that Hannah’s flair falters as she smothers her story line with questionable circumstances and flawless characters – too perfect to love.
The Great Alone, follows Hannah’s bestseller and award-winning novel, The Nightingale – both being optioned to become major motion pictures. As a child, Hannah travelled through America with her family in a Volkswagen bus, arriving in Alaska in the 1970s; her main inspiration for this sweeping novel. And it was her father’s fascination with Robert W. Service’s poem, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”, that provided Hannah with a more than apt title to this Alaskan yarn.
We meet the Allbrights in 1974, living in a society in flux, with daily televised bombings and kidnappings. The father, Ernt, who previously was the epitome of a loving and happy husband, returns from Vietnam, with crippling PTSD and deepening paranoia; people call him “baby-killer”, in the street. His wife, Cora, alienates herself from her family by marrying Ernt while still in high-school and raises Leni, their daughter, alone in a commune during his absence. On his return, Cora and Leni find his increasingly erratic and angry behaviour difficult to endure, yet Cora invariably excuses his behaviour throughout, “We have to understand and forgive…it’s like he has cancer…he’ll get better…”.
In an illogical and convenient coincidence, Ernt inherits 40 acres in Homer, Alaska, from Bo Harlan – a war buddy, and decides to move his reluctant wife and thirteen-year-old to an isolated Alaskan peninsula to become self-sufficient survivalists, believing it would solve their financial problems and abandon what he views a “ravaged America”.
The novel shines as Hannah’s childhood experience provides a beautiful authenticity to her depiction of the wilderness, that befits its metaphorical backdrop to the Allbright’s story. The beauty and colour of the landscape reflects Cora’s attractiveness, and reinforces Leni’s transformation from puberty to a resilient young woman, who is able to survive in the most extreme of environments. In contrast, the shrouding, lingering Alaskan winters are echoed in Ernt’s aptitude for violence that escalate as winter darkness descends. His moods shifting as quickly as an incoming Alaskan storm.
Hannah sensitively addresses a complex domestic violence situation. Cora’s apathy in leaving Ernt, particularly after a brutal beating; entices pity when Leni discovers Ernt at home and Cora becomes ashamed. Sighs of exasperation erupt as Leni’s profound connection to her mother does not allow her to leave this toxic environment, despite her desire for freedom. “It’s not him I can’t leave…It’s my mama. She needs me.”
From this point, Hannah loses credibility portraying the supporting cast in this domestic drama. Large Marge is as her name suggests, broad, strong and fearless, becoming Cora and Leni’s support in the absence of related family. Large Marge is impeccable – conveniently knowledgeable having previously been a lawyer, she provides solutions that offer Cora and Leni temporary respite from Ernt’s violence. She invariably bestows sophisticated insights such as, “You can’t just count on your man. You need to be able to save yourself…” and, “Up here you can make one mistake. The second one will kill you.”. Large Marge is largely one-dimensional without imperfections.
Other irreproachable characters include, Tom and his son Matthew Walker, the golden-haired hero, overflowing with kindness and goodwill, who will stop at nothing to save Leni, with catastrophic consequences. Tom Walker is stalwart and multitasks throughout, providing support to Cora and Leni while influencing locals to improve the town’s economic future. Tom inadvertently becomes Ernt’s number-one enemy, as Ernt’s disintegrating mental-health distrusts any change to the community, going so far as to build a ‘Trumpesque’ wall around his home, further isolating his family, in an ironic attempt, “to keep them safe”.
Hannah’s descriptions are lively and entertaining, but they become tiresome in repetitive tropes. It appears that people living in Alaska, must be eccentric and exist purely to provide chilling advice to repetitively remind readers of the dangerous environment that Cora and Leni have found themselves.
The father of Bo, Earl Hanlan, is a whiskey-swilling, gun-toting, doomsday prepper and like a squirrel, is accumulating enough food for the “nuclear winter that was coming”, but is given a blatantly, obvious moniker – “Mad Earl”. While Thelma, Mad Earl’s daughter, whose contrary fashion sense includes camouflage trousers with a smiley t-shirt, also warns “A woman has to be tough, as steel…you can’t count on anyone to save you…”. Natalie, an older woman, who’s friends with everyone, is described as a spiritual “wood nymph”, and sombrely proclaims “I never found a man worth having…”.
The Great Alone will do doubt appeal to a wide age demographic, including young adults, given Leni’s age and subsequent maturation while experiencing her first romance. Hannah deftly manoeuvres readers across the exhausting and never-ending escalation and retreat of domestic violence, in a haunting and exquisite landscape. The Great Alone flounders from this point, with lightweight supporting characters, decreasing in authenticity and credibility by confounding readers with resolutions that are too convenient, rushed and unbelievable. It is, however, an absorbing and captivating read so long as the reader does not delve too deeply into the happily ever after of Leni and Matthew.