In the Alaskan wilderness, you can make one mistake, warn the residents of the fictional Alaskan town Kaneq. It’s the second mistake that will kill you.
But that threat of the natural world is secondary to the danger the main characters face indoors in Kristin Hannah’s novel The Great Alone. And both sets of danger, inside and out, require cleverness, fortitude, and a healthy dose of fear to survive.
In 1974, 13-year-old Leni is well-accustomed to moving frequently—rapid relocation has been the course of life since her father, Ernt, came back from Vietnam. Whatever her mother, Cora, saw in him when they married as teenage lovers has been covered in a layer of scars and PTSD from his time as a POW. Now, he struggles to keep a job like he struggles to control his temper, and the family keeps on the move in an effort to stay ahead of the laundry list of creditors on their tail.
But hope comes in the form of a letter from a man in Kaneq, Alaska. The man’s son was a friend of Ernt’s during the war who was killed their POW camp, and instructed that if he didn’t come home, his homestead should go to Ernt. Ernt sells their belongings to fund the move northward while Cora tries to shore up their meager resources for if—when—things in the wilderness went wrong. Leni can only go along with the plan and hope this move will lead to as much peace and happiness as Ernt promises it will.
Things get off to a good start as the small family finds a colorful cast of characters willing to help them get on their feet. But the situation looks bleaker when they actually reach the cabin: a small, scat-filled structure without electricity or running water. Bears and moose roam the property, making midnight runs to the outhouse risky. Yet the family is happy and Ernt seems to be happier and more stable than Leni remembers him being before—until winter hits and Ernt starts spiraling. The reality of the wilderness hits close to home when a neighbor falls through the ice and dies, and the encroaching threats of the outside world make life feel scarier than ever.
This is not a perfect book. Some plot points feel a little pat, one aspect of the conclusion seems to be too-viciously given and too-easily resolved, and the dialogue sometimes sounds like it belongs in the mouths of an NPC in an open-world video game. That bit about getting to make one mistake in Alaska (but the second one will kill you) gets repeated a few times, though it’s true that small communities tend to share many of the same sayings and isms before long. But overall, the story feels as rich and wild as plunging your hands into the fertile soil of the book’s landscape.
You can feel the wilderness infecting Leni’s blood as she grows, and as she becomes more comfortable in her surroundings, she also begins to see through the thin veneer of the epic love story her parents insist they have. That’s a welcome change after reading through the unreliable narration of young Leni who sees her father’s violence and abuse but believes that he’ll try harder, get better. And it’s heartening to see the townspeople rally around Leni and Cora–even if it’s distressing to see how helpless they are against Ernt from a legal perspective. I’m no scholar on domestic violence legislation in the 1970s and this book made me curious but not curious enough to look it up, so I can’t speak to the authenticity of the plot points having to do with the legal system at that time.
I would assume Hannah did the requisite research because otherwise several things don’t hold water. But in the same way the medical community operated for decades without a means of diagnosing or treating PTSD, I do know the legal community has generally dragged its feet in securing protections for victims in bad situations. The rest of the book feels real enough that I’m willing to give The Great Alone the benefit of that factual (or fictional) doubt. The flaws aside, I wanted to return to the wilderness as much as grown-up Leni does. I wanted to read more about the wind weaving through the trees and the thin twilight of Alaskan summer. I wanted to hear the slap of a king salmon being landed and smell the briny breeze coming off the sea.
We’re in the middle of a pandemic. I’m not going anywhere. But reading The Great Alone made me feel like I traveled somewhere for the hours it took me to read it. It made me feel grateful for what I have. It made me yearn for what I lack.