The Great Alone

511Dl74cE9L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_  In Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, courage and perseverance battle the threatening elements of the Alaskan frontier in a family saga of the untamed wilderness.  Using elements of her own family’s experience in Alaska, Hannah captures the raw beauty in the magnificent stillness as well as the terror of survival in an unforgiving landscape.  Much like Ivey’s historical novel – To The Bright Edge of the Word, The Great Alone invokes the forbidding yet beautiful lure of Alaska as well as the fortitude of those who would live there.

A young girl, Leni, narrates her life story from 1974 to 2009, documenting her struggle in a family plagued by her father’s post-traumatic stress disorder following his return as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.  Moving from place to place, looking for peace and a place in a “world being run by lunatics,” her father suddenly inherits a parcel of isolated land in Kaneq, Alaska from a dead Army buddy. The family leaves Seattle to become pioneers in a place promising freedom from the trauma of the seventies – the Munich Olympics, Watergate, hijacked planes, and more.  Unprepared, the family struggles in a run-down log cabin with no electricity or running water, and only makes it through with the help of their neighbors, but Ernt, Leni’s father, sinks deeper into depression and becomes more abusive as the days become long nights in the Alaskan dark winter.

The characters surrounding the family represent a chorus of sturdy, sometimes stereotyped pioneers, from the tough former prosecutor, Large Marge, to the wealthy Walkers, descended from a hearty stock of generations of  homesteaders.  Earl Harlan, the old codger whose son, Bo, gifted the land, feeds Ernt’s negative outlook on life with his own pessimistic ramblings.  The liquor helps too.

Looking for a connection, Leni finally finds it in a young Matthew Walker.  As they grow from adolescence into young adulthood, their story becomes a Shakespearean tragedy, yet this Romeo and Juliet find ways to nurture their love despite their families’ feud and her father’s abuse. Through them Hannah reveals not only the wonder of the Alaskan beauty but also the hope of future generations.

As I read, I worried.  Would they meet the same fate as Shakespeare’s lovers?  Would the villain (the abusive father who becomes uncontrollable) destroy everyone around him?  Be assured, this is Kristin Hannah, an author who believes in happy endings.  Although the ending is somewhat contrived, and not everyone lives happily ever after, the lovers do survive.

In a world of conveniences, it’s easy to forget how difficult life was not so long ago.  Despite its modernization, in Alaska, the “last frontier,”  some still battle the rough and brutal elements and live “off the grid.”  Hannah uses them to demonstrate survival and communal strength; after all, love conquers all.

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The Love of My Youth

The theme of reuniting with a first love, after years of going different ways, is not new. But unlike Anita Shreve’s thoughtful Where or When, or Kristin Hannah’s mysterious On Mystic Lake, Mary Gordon’s The Love of My Youth transports the reader to Rome. As Miranda and Adam get reacquainted after not seeing each other for forty years, their daily walk touring the Eternal City is more inviting than the suspense of discovering the trauma behind their separation.

High school sweethearts who became college lovers, Adam was an aspiring pianist and Miranda a fiery activist in their youth. A betrayal tears them apart, and they have moved on to marry others and have children, with lives that have displaced their dreams. The serendipitous reunion offers a chance to revisit their time together in Rome years ago, and to resolve issues that led them to separate paths. As they wander through famous gardens, fountains, churches, and art, their slow conversations frame their reminiscing while revealing both who they were and who they have become.

The slow dialogue requires attention to catch the inflections, as Gordon tries to use her characters to mark moments they may have misconstrued and may never understand. The thought-provoking inserts are sometimes overdone:

“At some point we will not be here. On this earth. At some point, Miranda and he will be…where. Not here. He takes her hand and kisses it, and they are both embarrassed, so he drops it quickly, and calls the waiter for a check.”

It’s a slow slog as they avoid the elephant in the room. At times, you may wish they would just say what they mean to each other, instead of the italicized thought bubbles Gordon inserts. When their thoughts fall back to their youth, the action has historical context (the sixties) that shaped their lives, and as young hopefuls with potential, their characters seem more remarkable. In the present, the characters fade and Rome becomes the focal point.

After three weeks of angst and touring Rome, Miranda and Adam finally confront each other, and the betrayal is revealed. It’s no surprise by now that they were never the youthful soul mates they envisioned; Gordon’s access to their inner thoughts will have convinced you that they would have made each other miserable.

Villa Borghese

The story was a restful respite after reading Flynn’s Gone Girl; the psychological trauma is soft-pedelled with Gordon, and all is resolved philosophically. Revisiting Rome – the Villa Borghese, the Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere, Campo dia Fiore, the Bocca della Verite (the mouth of truth) – as well as its hidden treasures – La Casina dell’Orologio, Bernini’s saddled elephant, Keats’s grave – was a better story than the fate of the two long-lost lovers.

Home Front

Reading headlines about Tammy Duckworth, the double amputee Army helicopter pilot now running for Congress, and other survivors like her, evoke admiration for their strength, but not a real understanding of their personal trials and courage; Kristin Hannah offers some of that background in her new book – Home Front.  Hannah credits Chief Warrant Officer 5 Teresa Burgess, a Blackhawk pilot, for help with the military aspects, but Hannah’s story will have you tearing up – almost from the beginning.

How much harder would it be for a soldier to leave home for war, if the soldier were a woman and mother, whose husband has just asked for a divorce before she shipped out?  Jolene Zarkades is a forty-one year old weekend warrior with the National Guard, easily juggling a few flights a week in her helicopter with managing her middle school daughter’s preteen angst and her four-year olds exuberant energy.  Her best friend, Tami, lives next door and also flies with the Guard.  Jolene’s husband, Michael, is on the brink of a midlife crisis.

Suddenly, Jolene’s Regiment is called up, and she is assigned overseas.  Hannah inserts the private drama and fear through conversations between Jolene and Tami and the letters and videotapes left behind for the family.  When the inevitable helicopter crash happens, the story turns inward to how Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) affects those who make it back.  Hannah weaves a court drama into the mix (Michael is an attorney) that has a war veteran on trial for murdering his wife.  Balanced with Jolene’s journey of recovery and self-recrimination, the trial offers another opportunity to  examine the effects of PTSD.

Home Front retains the flavor of Hannah’s writing style (see reviews of her other books below), but takes on the added task of informing; her characters juggle with family issues but this time the confrontations seem less sentimental.  I stopped reading this book many times, thinking it couldn’t get much worse, as I looked for another box of tissues.  Jolene’s circumstances continued to get worse – until, of course, Hannah brings the story to a realistic ending.  But the resolution is not as important as the journey Hannah will take you on.

Other books by Hannah:

Night Road – Kristin Hannah

Kristin Hannah makes me cry – no matter that her characters are stereotyped; her plots are overworked; her messages trite. I kept reading “Night Road,” knowing the perfect family with the overprotective mother and staid doctor father, was literally going to hit a bump in the road.

Jude, the mother who can’t quite connect to her own mother, welcomes Lexi – the poor foster girl whose drug addict mother died in jail – as friends to her twins, Mia and Zachary. Of course, Lexi becomes best friends with Mia and Zach’s first love.

The plot turns with a fatal car accident after a drinking party, weeks before high school graduation. One teenager dies; all others are beyond consolation, especially Jude. Hannah nudges MADD with one of her plot twists, and possibly the prison system with another, but Hannah is no Grisham. Do not expect grand declarations of justice, mercy, or fortitude.

The ending, as always with Hannah, is happily-ever-after. Another quick read…another good cry…another sigh that all is well – at least in the world of fiction.

To read my review of Hannah’s “Winter Garden,” go to Winter Garden

Winter Garden

Are you a fan of  war stories?   Not the action and violent kind –  the ones with a sympathetic character who has somehow survived the horrors,  is psychologically damaged, but retains an inner strength.  Kristin Hannah’s Winter Garden has all the makings of a made-for-TV movie – World War II from the Russian perspective.

This family saga centers on the war story of a Russian refugee, who survived the terrifying siege on Leningrad during World War II.   Anya’s husband of fifty years, former soldier and an American apple orchard farmer,  evokes a deathbed promise for her to tell her painful history to their two grown daughters.

Hannah uses Anya’s  bedtime Russian fairy tales to her daughters as hints to her past, and weaves them into the everyday minutia of their lives.   As the stereotypical family conflicts develop in Hannah’s tale, it’s the tease of the fairy tale – told in cliffhanging episodes –  that will keep you reading.

Bronze Horseman

With the perspective of those whose lives were miserable under

Bronze Horseman camouflaged from German aircraft WWII

Stalin, only to be bombed by Hitler, the war scenes will have you crying –  but not as much as the deus ex machina ending.  On a cruise to Alaska, all is finally revealed and the catharsis of telling her story finally sets Anya free – to finally go off into the sunset – or maybe it’s the Northern Lights.

Every now and then, I like to read a little schmaltz – or in this case,  borscht with a little vodka.