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.