Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 344
Kristin Hannah's novel The Great Alone is a story about a young girl named Leni and her family, especially her father, Ernt, who is a Vietnam War veteran. Leni is a thirteen year old girl in 1974 when the story begins.
Ernt decides to move his family from Seattle, Washington, to his newly-owned property in Alaska. When Leni begins school, she meets a boy named Matthew Walker. Her friendship with Matthew is tested, but not ruined, when her family goes to the Walker house for a barbeque. At this barbeque, Ernt gets drunk while Cora flirts with Tom Walker, Matthew's father.
Ernt continues to cope by drinking and becoming angry. He also teaches members of their community about weapons training and how to protect themselves. Ernt's anger grows, and he hits Cora's head on a wall one night after the funeral of Matthew's mother. He continues to beat Cora, and Leni convinces her mother to leave. When they finally do, Cora and Leni get in an accident, and Cora breaks her arm.
Tom Walker, Large Marge the local merchant, Cora, and Leni encourage Ernt to take a job working on a pipeline in order to get him away from their home during the winter months.
As time passes, Leni and Matthew's friendship grows more romantic, and they kiss at a picnic. Matthew asks Leni to go to college with him. One night when Matthew and Leni are camping, a storm hits and Matthew is injured trying to help her. He suffers from brain damage. Leni learns she is pregnant and tries to keep this a secret from her father.
Cora tells Ernt about the pregnancy, and he is angered. To protect Leni, Cora shoots Ernt, and they hide his body by putting it in a frozen lake. Cora's parents try to get false papers in order to hide Cora and Leni from the police.
Leni gives birth to a boy named Matthew Junior, or MJ. After some time, Leni graduates from the University of Washington. Leni and MJ return to Alaska to find many changes.
Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2102
Author: Kristin Hannah (b. 1960)
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (New York). 448 pp.
Type of work: Novel
Locales: Seattle, Washington; Kaneq, Alaska
In this follow-up to her blockbuster The Nightingale (2015), Kristin Hannah follows a family of three as they move from Seattle to Alaska hoping to leave behind the demons the father brought back with him from Vietnam.
Lenora “Leni” Allbright, a teenage girl whose family moves to Alaska
Ernt Allbright, her father, a Vietnam veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Cora Allbright, her mother
Matthew Walker, her best friend/boyfriend
Marge “Large Marge” Birdsall, the Allbrights’ neighbor, a store owner
Tom Walker, a wealthy local resident, Matthew’s father
“Mad” Earl Harlan, an alcoholic friend of Ernt’s
War changes people—at least that is what Cora Allbright tells her daughter Leni when Ernt Allbright loses another job or comes up with another crazy idea. Change becomes both an excuse and reason for almost everything Ernt Allbright does. Thirteen-year-old Leni tries to understand, but she is tired of moving around, always being the new girl at school and never making real friends. When Ernt receives a letter from Earl Harlan, the father of a lost Vietnam friend, their lives move in yet another direction: Harlan’s letter informs Ernt that his son Bo has left his property in Alaska to Ernt. Ernt’s eager acceptance of this bequest, his wife’s hesitant agreement, and his daughter’s skepticism foreshadow the difficulties the Allbright family will face; Leni is compliant despite her misgivings, “Because that was what love was.”Courtesy of St. Martin's Press
The novel is broken into three sections that follow vital changes in Leni’s life. The first section, “1974,” follows the Allbright family to Kaneq, Alaska. Though the move shows some promise for the family, the long winters drive Ernt to a dark place, and by the end of their first year, some of the locals prevail on Ernt to leave his family to take a well-paying job on an oil pipeline under construction on Alaska’s North Slope. The second section of the novel returns to the family in 1978. For four years, there has been peace in the Allbright house, at least during the winter months, when Ernt is away working on the pipeline; however, he is eventually fired from his job and returns home angrier than before. At seventeen, Leni has grown up and begins to challenge her father’s authority, resulting in a loss that almost cripples her ability to function and forces her mother to stand up to Ernt’s abuse. The novel moves to a close with a final section that takes place almost eight years later in 1986. Life has changed again, and as a grown woman, Leni must deal with loss once more.
The novel is primarily character driven, with the Allbrights as the main focus. The story is told in a limited omniscient point of view with Leni as the main character. Crafted as a bildungsroman, the narrative follows Leni from an insecure thirteen-year-old afraid of facing one more drastic change in her life to a twenty-five-year old woman who willfully chooses to embrace her life’s desires. The move to Alaska teaches the young Leni how to work hard, how to be a friend even when she did not want to reveal all of the dirty aspects of her life, and how to cover up for her father. She believes that she can “never tell the truth, never that Dad had trouble keeping a job and staying in one place, and never that he drank too much and liked to yell”—even to her friend Matthew, the only local boy her age.
By the middle of their first year in Alaska, Leni is tired of facing her father’s illness: “It was exhausting to worry all the time, to study Dad’s every movement and the tone of his voice.” She is, however, still a child, fearful of losing her parents after Matthew’s mother dies. Within four years, which hold some months of peace while her father is away working on the pipeline, Leni is more matter-of-fact about her father; she knows that “Dad wasn’t one to let things go.” Despite this knowledge, she is still a teen, and when Matthew returns to Kaneq after spending four years away while grieving the loss of his mother, Leni falls in love with him, even knowing that the relationship is dangerous because of her father’s hatred of Matthew’s father. Her love for Matthew makes her see her life differently, and Hannah skillfully paints a picture of the fragmentation in her life: “Leni had gotten used to seeing herself in shards of glass. Herself in pieces.” After she and Matthew almost die in a fall, she defies her father at home, declaring that she is pregnant with Matthew’s child. Ernt’s reaction is to turn on her, and she becomes an adult in an instant when Cora finally stands up against her husband’s fury. © Kevin Lynch
Cora’s strength at that moment comes in a revelation of love for her daughter that breaks the bonds that have tied her in a twisted and broken way to a man who could never truly return to the personality that she had loved “before” the war. In the years he was gone to Vietnam, Cora had flitted around, trying a variety of lifestyles for herself and her daughter. When he returned, she fell into her old habits of allowing him to make choices and of living mostly for his whims. She was frightened and overwhelmed by the Alaskan landscape and experience, but she put up with it and with the darkness that took over his mind because she loved him, and “she had chosen to dig for treasure through the dirt of Dad’s toxic, porous love.” She has one moment of strength when Ernt attacks Leni. That moment of strength finally shows Leni the unbreakable bond between mother and child and leads to another, better change in their lives. Only with Ernt truly gone can Cora learn to lean on her own parents and find forgiveness.
Leni and Cora grow and change throughout a number of thematic issues, most of which involve Ernt. For instance, one of the major thematic ideas in the novel is Ernt’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after Vietnam. The years prior to his service are referenced as “Before”: “before” he loved his family, he was gentle and giving, he was fun to be around, and he could hold down a job. The novel, however, follows him after his return from being held as a prisoner of war. At this point in his life, he is too often unable to function. Nightmares and flashbacks are exacerbated by alcohol. As a result, he emotionally and physically abuses Cora, retreats into bizarre conspiracy theories regarding the government, and falls into rages of jealousy. Through the development of Ernt’s character, Hannah sheds a light on the tragic repercussions of war on the broken soldiers who are sent home without appropriate care and on the families who cling to a hope that their loved ones will be able to return to the lives they had before. Change, for Ernt, means destruction: of his marriage, of his sanity, of his life. So, he rebels against it with his whole being, not understanding or perhaps not caring that he is dragging his wife and daughter into the abyss with him.
Another point illustrated through the development of the female characters revolves around women—their powerlessness and their strength. This strength is needed partly because of problematic issues in the 1970s, such as women’s lack of voice, even outside of their homes. For example, when Cora goes to the bank to get a credit card, she tells Leni that “they won’t give me a credit card unless your father or my father cosigns. . . . Sweet Jesus, it’s 1974. I have a job. I make money. And a woman can’t get a credit card without a man’s signature. It’s a man’s world, baby girl.” Soon after arriving in Alaska, Cora is warned that the land is also unforgiving, when Thelma, Earl’s daughter, warns her, “A woman has to be tough as steel up here, Cora. You can’t count on anyone to save you and your children. You have to be willing to save yourselves. And you have to learn fast.” Leni understands the powerlessness even more strongly as she watches her family fall apart while spousal abuse is heaped on her mother at her father’s hands. Though there are many times when their friends and neighbors offer to help Cora and Leni escape Ernt’s abuse, the police will not step in to change the situation unless Cora will press charges, and Leni knows her mother will never be able to do that.
Women are presented positively in the novel as well. After they arrive in Alaska, Cora and Leni learn that the women around them hold a power that can carry them through the long winters. On their first day in Kaneq, Large Marge, who runs the local grocery store, warns, “Well. You’ll need to be tough up here, Cora Allbright. For you and your daughter. You can’t just count on your man. You need to be able to save yourself and this beautiful girl of yours.” Marge and two other women come to their new property the next day, showing the Allbrights how to begin building their homestead into something that will sustain them throughout the long, hard Alaska winter. Later, after Earl’s death, his daughter Thelma stands up to Ernt’s wild raving, effectively shutting him down and casting him out of the Harlan compound. After the tragedy with Matthew and Ernt’s attack on Leni, Cora and Leni both find a strength that holds them up through the rest of their lives. Themes of mother-child love, loneliness, fear, hope, and tragedy further illustrate the lives of the women in the novel.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the novel centers on Hannah’s presentation of the Alaskan frontier of the 1970s. Known as “The Great Alone,” a line from a Robert Service poem, the land itself is set apart. People live “off the grid,” without electricity or running water. They adapt to the harsh conditions, learning to preserve food, build what they need, and take care of themselves and their neighbors. Regardless of the harsh conditions, Hannah paints a picture of the beauty of a land that makes it “home” for those who are strong enough to “become your best self and flourish.”
Critical reception of the novel has been primarily positive, if a bit less enthusiastic than commentary on The Nightingale (2015), Hannah’s previous novel. Reviewers for Booklist (Kristine Huntley), School Library Journal (Tara Kehoe), and Kirkus Reviews pointed to, respectively, the author’s ability to “vividly [evoke] the natural beauty and danger of Alaska” (Huntley), to use “vivid description” (Kehoe), and to re-create “in magical detail the lives of Alaska’s homesteaders in both of the state’s seasons (they really only have two)” (Kirkus). Other prominent notes pointed to the “compelling portrait of a family in crisis” (Huntley), the “incongruous violence” (Kehoe), and the “specific and authentic . . . depiction of the spiritual wounds of post-Vietnam America” (Kirkus). Reviewing the novel for Library Journal, Bette-Lee Fox highlighted “the astuteness of the story and the unbreakable connection between mother and child.” The combination of setting, characterization, and troubling thematic ideas will hold a reader’s attention throughout the novel.
- Fox, Bette-Lee. Review of The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah. Library Journal, 1 Oct. 2017, p. 65. Academic Search Complete, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=125401603. Accessed 17 July 2018.
- Review of The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah. Kirkus Reviews, 31 Oct. 2018, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/kristin-hannah/the-great-alone/. Accessed 17 July 2018.
- Review of The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah. Publishers Weekly, 9 Oct. 2018, www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-312-57723-0. Accessed 17 July 2018.
- Huntley, Kristine. Review of The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah. Booklist, 1 Nov. 2017, www.booklistonline.com/The-Great-Alone-Kristin-Hannah/pid=9087847. Accessed 17 July 2018.
- Kehoe, Tara. Review of The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah. School Library Journal, Mar. 2018, p. 128. Academic Search Complete, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=128357532. Accessed 17 July 2018.
- Maslin, Janet. “A Troubled Dad Takes His Family into the Wild.” Review of The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah. The New York Times, 1 Feb. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/02/01/books/review-great-alone-kristin-hannah.html. Accessed 17 July 2018.