The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah 🎧

About mini reviews:

Maybe you’re not an audio book person, or maybe you are. I provide mini reviews of audio books and give a recommendation on the format. Was this book improved by a voice actor? Would a physical copy have been better? Perhaps they complement each other? Read on. . .

When she was a girl, Leni and her mother, Cora, spent years alone. The third member of their family, Ernt, was in Vietnam and a POW, but he’s finally returned. It’s 1974 and the family struggles as Ernt fails to keep a job and suffers from night terrors and what we now know is PTSD. Cora recommends therapy (I was surprised given the 1974 setting), but Ernt says no. Whatever his environment, he’s positive that’s what contributes to his incessant dread. So when Ernt receives word that his war friend has died and left Ernt a parcel of land with a cabin on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, Ernt decides this is what will make him feel better. Live away from people. Be self-sustaining. Cora is always the agreeable wife, and Leni is not a daughter who complains or voices concerns.

What they find is a small collection of people homesteading (check out this blog post for some images) and a couple of businesses — a town store and bar, basically. These families are living off the land away from society, and it was all started by the Walker family. It’s unclear to me why the Walker family has money, but Ernt immediately hates the head of the clan, Tom Walker, for wanting to change simple things, like repaint the bar, because Ernt sees it as “some rich asshole” making decisions for other people. However, Ernt’s family has no idea how to survive in the wilderness; their kind neighbors get them set up, teach them, and offer support. After a few years in Alaska, Ernt thinks he knows better than Tom Walker what it means to be a real Alaskan and decides they should be as isolated as possible.

And as his agitation continues, Ernt begins beating Cora. This is when Leni realizes that her father has likely hit her mother all along, but they hid it. As Ernt’s violence grows worse, it dominates the novel, which made me physically ill at times. But it is Leni’s steadfast loyalty to her mother, who won’t leave Ernt because she claims he was a different man before the war destroyed him, that drives a small ounce of hope. Can Leni leave the Kenai Peninsula to attend college in Anchorage alongside Matthew Walker, her dearest friend whom she loves? Would leaving her mother mean Cora’s more vulnerable to domestic abuse? It’s the typical scenario of a child who thinks they can be a buffer between victim and abuser.

There’s loads that’s familiar about The Great Alone, but it’s done in an unfamiliar way. Yes, there is domestic violence, but the author makes readers (or listeners) reassess how we think of abusers. Was Ernt a good person and being a POW changed him? Do mental disorders mean the abused she be more forgiving and understanding? Also, Ernt never makes claims that he will kill Cora if she ever leaves him, or that he will kill himself — the typical threats of a domestic abuser.

All along the way, we’re hoping that Leni, who is truly a good girl, will make a happy life for herself, most likely with Matthew, in their own home on the Kenai Peninsula. Kristin Hannah, however, doesn’t make things easy, and I assume this stems from her own background in the wilds of Alaska. She knows the place (the setting is VIVID!), she knows the people, and she ain’t playin’ with fairy tales. I was worried The Great Alone would be ceaselessly dismal, but a well-attuned eye (or ear) will catch the way the author subtly suggests what’s going to happen, meaning we don’t get any kind of unreasonable ending.

I found the novel incredibly engrossing, even as I often listened angrily, throwing my own opinions at the characters, as if they could hear me and heed my advice. And Julia Whelan’s clear reading voice, one that inserts emotion but is not performative, makes the audiobook an good listen. I would have enjoyed the text version just as much, so it’s your preference.

If you want an emotional read, a book that explores nearly unlivable landscapes, and complexity, I highly recommend The Great Alone.

30 comments

    • It can be frustrating because it has domestic violence as a theme, and a mother who won’t leave the man who’s hitting her, but the problem is also that he was a different person (apparently) before he was tortured in Vietnam. So, that can be terribly frustrating, but the characters are always compelling and the setting is vivid. I’ve never lived on a homestead, but I could picture it all.

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  1. I find these kind of wilderness stories so engaging and fascinating, mainly because I know I’d never hack it. I love my urban life! I like escaping for a day, or a few days to the mountains, but my creature comforts are just too good to give up 🙂

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  2. This sounds a fascinating read with the expert depiction of the environment; however, I’m not sure I could stomach the domestic abuse side of things, even though I know quite a lot about that topic as I studied it during my Library Studies postgrad.

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    • If domestic abuse is hard for you to read about (and I think it’s hard for everyone, to be fair, but I know there are some topics, for whatever reason, that hit some people much, much harder), then I wouldn’t recommend this book for you, Liz. The abuse is incessant for a good chunk of the novel, though that is not all it is.

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  3. I might be happy to read a novel set in Alaska by an author who knows Alaska but I won’t read any fiction concerning Vietnam War vets. I opposed the war back then, and thought then and now that it was wrong to interfere with the Viet Cong who were just trying to reclaim their country. I’m sorry so many young American and Australian men came home damaged but they should have gone in with their eyes open. We did our best to warn them. (And like you, I think it was a long time before ‘vets’ were encouraged to think of themselves as damaged, as indeed some of them were).

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    • I absolutely hear you. Unfortunately for many involved in the Vietnam War, they were drafted and didn’t want to go. It wasn’t like WWI or post 9/11 when everyone was excited about signing up for patriotic reasons (that’s a whole can of worms). Even when we learn about Vietnam in school, it makes zero sense. Nothing adds up, the events sound pointless, and then we’re supposed to be tested on that. I found this about PTSD:

      “The term “post-traumatic stress disorder” came into use in the 1970s in large part due to the diagnoses of U.S. military veterans of the Vietnam War. It was officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980 in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”

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  4. Great review! I too loved this one for the vivid Alaskan wilderness setting, the 70s vibe, and the handling of abusive relationships. It’s the only Kristin Hannah I’ve read so far, but I’ve got my eye on her latest release (which is set in the Dust Bowl)- I expect it will also be painful. 🙂

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  5. Your review tempts me a little though I haven’t been super drawn to this one. Have you read others by Kristin Hannah? I’ve only read The Nightingale and found it rather emotionally overblown and I wonder if her other books are like that.

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    • I have not read any of her other books, but based on The Great Alone, I wondered if this is a writer who really punches you in the emotions. Based on your question, I’m guessing she is and you may not like her other work.

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      • I mean, it worked and I definitely cried at the end of Nightingale but I felt kind of manipulated. It’s the same way I feel about shows like Grey’s Anatomy. Like they’re trying too hard to play on my emotions.

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  6. I like reading books that family members are reading, even when they’re not at all to my taste…sometimes. If I do it more than sometimes, I start to focus too much on what I don’t like about the books they enjoy so much more than I do, and I want the discussions to be something we both enjoy. And isn’t it weird how rarely characters seem to listen, when you’re yelling at them? I mean, it’s just you and them in the room. What ELSE are they paying attention to exactly.

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  7. Great review of a great book! 🙂
    This one is definitely an emotional read. We’ve read this one and The Nightingale in our book club and both books made me cry! lol They’re both excellent, though. I’m always so impressed when an author can stir up such real emotions in people with fictional characters. There’s such a special talent in that kind of writing. ❤

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    • Even though Kristin Hannah really pulls on your emotions, I always thought it was earned. Because I have a background in studying and teaching fiction writing, I can’t help when I read but look for the tactics authors use. And in the case of The Great Alone, there were so many subtle and excellent suggestions of what would happen with Matthew.

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  8. There was a really great episode of Strong Sense of Place a few months ago about books set in Alaska, several of which had the theme of people running away to it to escape problems/emotions that they thought would be less obvious in the wilderness – only to find, like Leni and her family, that being isolated brings things out into the open rather than the reverse. Interesting that the same themes were picked up by this author!

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    • I’m not sure why, but I was surprised to learn that the author lived on a homestead in Alaska for a long time, so she writes from a place of truth. I can’t imagine how all of your deepest thoughts and feelings would stay hidden when you’re in the middle of no where. Maybe they think by not interacting with other folks, they’ll be less aggitated?

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  9. Great review! This sounds like an engrossing but brutal book. There was a time I was able to read books like this, but not anymore. Realistic novels about emotional topics are hard for me.

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