Book Notes: Take dysfunction and add a dose of Alaska winter
“The Great Alone” By Kristin Hannah. St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2018. $28.99. 440 pages.
No one really knows how they’ll perform until they’re tested. You can load up the backpack, for example, you can buy a good pair of boots and you can hike into the wilderness, but until you’ve left the roads and malls and Wi-Fi behind, you won’t understand isolation. And you won’t know what isolation can do to you.
Kristin Hannah’s new novel, “The Great Alone,” lays out life in Alaska in 1974, season by season, challenge by challenge, with great authority and skill. She’s a powerful storyteller, grabbing readers early and dragging them through a harrowing story of family dysfunction in a remote and unforgiving region of Alaska. “People die for the smallest mistake,” Large Marge, the storekeeper, tells 13-year-old Leni. “Fear is common sense up here.”
Leni, her mother Cora and her father, Ernt, move to a rotting and fetid homestead in Alaska that Ernt inherited from a fellow soldier in Vietnam after he was killed. Ernt, a pilot, was shot down, tortured and held captive for six years. He came home a stranger, violent and addicted to alcohol. The small family moved five times in four years before relocating to the 20-acre homestead on a peninsula not even accessible by boat in low tide.
Although our perception of Alaskans is that they’re independent, solo survivors, bent on going it alone, Hannah’s version is both more interesting and more likely. The people who live nearby in a makeshift community see that the Allbright family is ill equipped to make it through a winter so they pitch in to help them build animal pens, gardens and a root cellar. Barter and trade replace money, and life-threatening emergencies are met with an all-hands call via the ham radio. Interdependence works except for those who, like Ernt, have lost the capacity to trust. He builds a wall around his family and locks them inside just as the skies turn dark and winter sets in. He is at his worst in winter.
Cora, the beauty he married, cannot leave her husband despite his dangerous and brutal rages and beatings. Leni, her daughter, worries for her mother’s safety and the two of them declare a lasting bond. They survived Ernt’s long absence in Vietnam by proclaiming that they were “two peas in a pod.” They took turns being strong.
Hannah tells the story through Leni, who is smart, tough and, unlike her mother, able to understand the stakes. Both Leni and Cora love Alaska and they love their neighbors. Leni goes to school, meets a boy her age, and they become fast friends. Matthew’s father has money and takes some responsibility for the small community’s welfare. His kindness and generosity set off Ernt’s jealousy and suspicions. Thus, the wall. The demons are everywhere, real and imagined.
The Allbright’s family’s dysfunction is hard to bear. I’ve served on the board of a shelter for battered women and have seen how shame, guilt and financial dependence can corner most anyone lacking resources and support. Cora’s problems go deeper. She’s in perpetual lust for a man no one else can abide, including readers. And she has Hannah, expert storyteller, escalating the peril as the winter grows darker and colder and harsher.
Normal boundaries are verboten in the Allbright household. As Leni grows older, and is about to graduate from high school, she is still unable to assert her independence in any normal way. When she makes an assertive statement to her father, she “lights a fuse” in him that inevitably leads to violence. This book is a page-turner that’s best enjoyed with a glass of wine and some deep breathing. Besides Ernt’s rages, there are all of Alaska’s hazards to worry over. No one, not even the most skilled survivalists, are immune to the threats lurking at every turn. Brace yourself.
Leni realizes that “Mom would never leave Dad” and that Leni would never leave her mom. “And Dad would never let them go.” It is a “toxic knot” of a family and there would be, in Leni’s estimation, no escape for any of them. The root of this toxicity is, oddly, an abiding love that Hannah builds into the core of this story. When Cora reflects on the love that binds her family, she cites “the durability and the lunacy of it.” It’s the durability, not the dysfunction, that persists.
— Rae Padilla Francoeur can be reached at Rae@RaeFrancoeur.com.