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.

Related Reviews:

Advertisements

Faithful by Alice Hoffman

9781476799209_p0_v3_s192x300 Alice Hoffman always manages to instill some magic into her narrative, and a little appears in Faithful, but more believable than some of her other stories like Practical Magic or Nightbird – yet just as captivating.

Hoffman weaves the story around a mother-daughter relationship after a devastating car accident.  Seventeen year old Shelby Richmond was driving when the car crashed; she survived but her best friend, Helene, became a vegetable and the town saint.  As Helene lies comatose in her parents’ living room, amazing miracles seem to happen to some who make the pilgrimage to her bedside – scars disappear, diseases are cured, roses bloom in February on the anniversaries of the crash.  Shelby, on the other hand, shaves her head, cuts her self, becomes a drug addict, and hides in her parents’ basement – in shame and guilt at having survived.  The reader follows her journey to redemption as Hoffman takes Shelby from antisocial misery to working in a pet store and eventually to veterinary school.

Along the way, Shelby has help growing up and realizing how to live her second chance at life.  Mysterious postcards appear intermittently in the story, and solving the mystery of the sender becomes a catalyst to reading on.  When the “angel” is revealed, the story satisfyingly provides closure in a number of ways – to tell too much would spoil the reading.

great_pyrenees_tavish Despite her rocky relationship with her mother and her subsequent connections with men, it’s the dogs in Shelby’s life who are the true saviors.  She rescues abused homeless dogs, taking them to live with her in her three hundred foot studio apartment.  Their personalties reflect Shelby’s needs – from the French bull dog, who always leads the way, to the one-eyed small dog who needs carrying, and the gentle guardian, the white Great Pyrenees.  Eventually, her mother’s toy poodle becomes part of the brood.  Dog lovers will readily identify with the value of Shelby’s canine friends.

Alice Hoffman’s stories always catch me unaware – before I know it I am deep in the story and cannot let go.  Although the story begins on a depressing note, Hoffman quickly escalates to her real message, and the dogs in this story were an added bonus.

Reviews of Other Alice Hoffman Books:

The Lifeboat

What does it mean to be a survivor?

In Charlotte Rogan’s The Lifeboat, the cruise ship Empress Alexandra sinks not long after the fatal Titanic and before the sinking of the Lusitania. The prologue eliminates the stress of wondering whether the main character, Grace Winter, survives; in the first few pages, she is in a courtroom, on trial for murder on the high seas.

As Grace records her “recollections” in a diary for her attorneys, she reveals her status as a woman in the early 1900s as well as her moral core. With her father’s death and subsequent loss of their fortune, the future looks grim for Grace. Her sister, Miranda, with no marriage prospects, takes a job as a governess, but Grace plots her own future with Henry, a wealthy banker – no matter that he is engaged to be married in a month. After she contrives to meet him, he falls in love with her, forsakes his fiancée, and books passage to Europe – where they can be secretly wed, without the disapproval of his mother. World War I is about to begin, and they book passage almost immediately to return to New York – but the ship sinks.

Henry bribes a crewman to take Grace onto the last lifeboat – and the story begins with Grace recounting the 21 days that she drifted on the ocean with a boat full of passengers.

Do you remember the writing prompt that had you choose who to save in the lifeboat? One version of the overpopulated boat has a medic who is unconscious, a little girl who has a disability, an old man who is on the brink of a major scientific discovery, an award-winning author, a crewman from the sunken ship, and a wealthy entrepreneur noted for his philanthropy. You must throw one overboard. The obvious choice might be the writer, unless you are one.

Although 40 passengers are in Rogan’s Lifeboat, she focuses the story around a small cluster, including a deacon of the church, a mother with a small child, an obstreporous Unsinkable Molly, a blustery colonel, three non-English speaking Italian women, a suspicious but experienced sailor, and Grace. Rogan details the physical horrors of their trial on the unrelenting sea, but their interactions, inner thoughts, alliances, and conspiracies may be more harrowing.

The Lifeboat is a riveting tale with a core ethical dilemma: what should you do to save yourself? Whether or not you get the symbolism and metaphors, the story is not what you expect.