The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
The Alaskan wilderness has always been intriguing to me, so I love the setting of the story. The weather, remoteness, and lack of basic necessities is not for the faint of heart. I am in awe of people who go off the grid and can adapt to the harsh conditions of that wintery land. Whether the characters were born in Alaska or have run away from the real world elsewhere, their hardiness impresses me.
The Great Alone is peopled with many eccentric, out of the norm characters who accept the weirdness of others. Most of the inhabitants of the small town would seem strange to us, but it is to the town’s credit that it takes in all comers — once they prove they can survive one winter.
When Leni’s parents, Cora and Ernt, try to escape her father’s PTSD and alcoholism by leaving the worry of civilization behind them, they discover they are woefully unprepared. Their neighbor’s give help even though they have so little themselves. The new family is up to the challenges of the wilderness until the long winter dreariness exacerbates Leni’s father’s depression and paranoia. He beats his wife again and again, but she accepts the violence as part of his illness and sees it as her duty to help heal him.
Leni grew up sheltered from the worst of Ernt’s violence. When she falls in love with Matthew, a neighbor boy, she begins to realize her parent’s love for each other isn’t quite right. As the violence grows worse, neighbors notice and offer help, but Cora holds fast to the belief that protecting Ernt is her duty . . . and she loves him.
As four years go by, the family is accepted by the town and left alone to settle their own problems. Matthew’s mother is lost beneath the ice before his eyes. He is devastated and is sent to Fairbanks to recover. Leni’s friendship for Matthew continues through letters. When he returns, the young couple realizes they are in love. Ernt threatens all of them if Leni sees the boy again. Ernt builds a fort around their property and lock his family within, fearing a government invasion, nuclear war, and the threat of the have-nots taking what belongs to him.
Leni and Matthew escape while Cora is beaten. In a winter storm Leni falls into a deep crevasse. Matthew tries to reach her, but has an even worse fall and nearly bleeds to death before rescuers find them. Leni is dragged back home into their fort, but she now sees her father as a violent man and her mother’s “healing him” as a misguided weakness. She begs her mother to run away with her because Leni is pregnant. Cora finally agrees, but Ernt thwarts their plan. In anger Leni shouts that she is pregnant drawing Ernt’s violence down on herself. To stop the beating, Cora shoots Ernt.
Knowing that self defense is not always believed in battered wife cases, mother and daughter dump Ernt’s body into a hole in the ice and make it look like Ernt killed them both and ran off himself. They seek the aid of Large Marge, an ex-lawyer who arranges for Leni and her mother to be flown back to Seattle and Cora’s parents. Lenis makes one more visit to the hospital to visit Matthew, but he is so brain damaged he isn’t expected to live. She never got the chance to tell him she was pregnant.
Cora’s estranged parents are overjoyed to have their daughter and granddaughter back. They arrange new identities for them in case the police suspect foul play in Ernt’s death. The neighbors believed that Ernt killed his family and himself, but the police keep the case open.
Leni gives birth to Matthew junior and lives with her grandparents for 7 years. Her mother dies of lung cancer and insists on writing a letter stating she alone killed her husband, disposed of his body, and Leni, who was 18 at the time, had nothing to do with it.
Leni yearns to return to Alaska to get her name and life back. She also never stopped loving Matthew and wants to find out if he was still living. She and the little boy return to the little town in Alaska to deliver her mother’s confession to the police. The cop convinces Leni she’d feel less guilt if she admitted to helping to dump the body. She does and he promptly arrests her. She turns to Matthew’s father, Tom, for help and introduces him to his grandson. Tom pulls some strings to get her out of jail and Large Marge bullies the arresting officer and the judge into dropping the ridiculous charges. Case closed.
Tom brings Leni to his home where Matthew is being cared for. He is brain damaged, but can speak and can get around. He is shocked to see her and doesn’t understand. She helps him to understand and then introduces his son. He is overjoyed and they live happily ever after.
This novel is interesting, mostly due to the eccentric characters who populate the wilderness town. I was attracted to Large Marge and Matthew’s parents who were in the small town for the right reasons. I also like Leni and Matthew, though the story of their relationship reads more like a novel for young readers.
I don’t care for Cora because she has blinded herself to what the violence in their home was doing to her daughter. Her’s and Ernt’s lovey-doveyness is too much, given the beatings he gives her for so many years. I can’t even cheer for her when she escapes.
Ernt’s violence is a stark contrast to the basic goodness of every other person in the area. Even the extreme loners came out of the wilderness to support neighbors, join a search team, or attend a funeral.
My only other criticism is that the story goes on too long by about 50 pages. By the middle of the book, the reader understands the beauty and grandeur of Alaska and has been warned many times of its dangers. It becomes repetitive. I found myself scanning for the thread of the story and thinking blah, blah, blah about the continuing descriptions. The same goes for Leni’s inner feelings. I get it.
Great book club discussion book. Over all it was a good book, but it’s Alaska that makes it so.