The Great Alone gives us a picture of the wilderness that was Alaska in the 1970's. It is the story of Leni (Lenora) and her move with her parents to a property in Alaska that here father, Ernt, inheirits from an Army buddy. Ernt is a Viet Nam veteran, who suffers from PTSD and is angry and ragingly out of control. He is married to Cora, Leni's mother and the three of them have a symbiotic relationship.
When we meet Leni Allbright in 1973, she is 13. She struggles at being the odd girl out at school and her parents sell her on the move as a chance to begin anew. She reads incessantly to escape, writes, and is an accomplished photographer. She loves her mother unconditionally and is true to her in every instance. After the move to Alaska she seems to come out of her shell and embraces the adventure that the setting provides. She also begins to see how abusive her father has become.
Ernt hasn't been able to keep a job and has the family on the move to "start over." Cora is the daughter of relatively well off parents, her father a lawyer. They are estranged because of their opposition to Cora's marriage to Ernt as a young girl who was pregnant. When they move to Alaska they find themselves in a supportive and unselfish community. However, Ernt gets involved with "Mad Earl" Harlan, who is a paranoid survivalist and who begins to influence Ernt's thoughts in the same direction. The two become drinking buddies which adds to Ernt's simmering antagonism.
Cora is the ever faithful spouse who is deeply in love with Ernt, even as abusive as he is. The least little thing sets him off and he takes out his anger on Cora. It is not long before the towns people pick up on this and try as they may to convince Cora to leave him, she still loves him and stands by him.
On the first day of school for Leni she meets Matthew Walker. The two become instant friends. Leni supports him through a series of tragedies and he reciprocates for her. He has lived all his life in Kenaq and that is his desire as he grows older and eventually has a family. The relationship between Leni and Matthew begins to change to a romantic one as they discover they both love the adventure and setting of Kenaq. The reader senses that it isn't going to be all a bed of roses.
The village of Kenaq is home to many characters whom Hannah lets have the spotlight at times in their relationship to the Allbrights. Tom Walker serves as the direct opposite of Ernt. He is compassionate and a true father. He is seen by Ernt as "the competition" when Ernt feels that he is flirting with Cora. The animosity is more than obvious between them and comes to blows when Tom decides to try to modernize Kenaq. Large Marge is a large black woman who came to Alaska when she grew tired of the legal world as a prosecutor. She sees what is happening in the Allbright household and takes Cora and Leni under her wing.
Alaska is also a character in the book. It tests its inhabitants endurance and strength. When the Allbrights arrive in Kenaq, they are constantly reminded as to what they need to do to survive the Alaskan winter. There is reference as to Alaska as a place where one is chosen to survive or forced to leave. The cold gives the reader shivers to be sure. But to those who can survive, it becomes a real home.
We picked this book out for the Gables May Book Club, but copies were hard to get and so postponed it until November. The discussion will be lively, I am sure. The themes of trauma and domestic violence know no boundaries and they are ever present in this novel. But then, so is a nurturing love, which is seen between the community and its member and between Leni and Matthew. The title, The Great Alone, comes from The Shooting of Dan McGrew by Robert Service.
The poem forges a bond between Leni and Matthew."Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear;With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the cold,A half-dead thing in a stark, dead world, clean mad for the muck called gold;While high overhead, green, yellow and red, the North Lights swept in bars? —Then you've a hunch what the music meant. . . hunger and night and the stars."
This book would rank high on my list of favorites. Tho a completely different book than The Nightingale, the writing is engaging and prohibitive of wanting to put it down before you have turned the last page.