The Great Alone- Kristin Hannah, author; Julia Whelan, narrator
This is a hard book to summarize because it goes off on so many tangents over several decades, really beginning in 1974, with a major change in lifestyle for the Allbrights, and ending with a published piece about Alaska, by Lenora Walker, in 2009. Although all the dots connect and get resolved in the end, there is a danger of giving the story away in the summary, so I must warn readers that this review contains spoilers.
Ernt Allbright and Coraline Golliher fell in love when she was 16 and still in high school. Her parents objected to him. When she became pregnant, she quit school, and they ran away and eloped. He worked as a mechanic, and they lived a vagabond sort of life until he went to Vietnam. After his helicopter was downed, he was captured and became a prisoner of war in a place known for its brutality. Cora was left alone with her daughter, until he returned, a much damaged man, prone to nightmares and violence.
One day, in 1974, a letter came from the father of one of his Nam buddies. Bo had died there and had left him his land in Alaska. As he found it hard to be in the real world, a place where Patti Hearst was kidnapped, Watergate was being investigated, and Israelis were murdered at the Munich Olympics, he decided they should move to Alaska, the new frontier, and start life again without the encumbrances of modern technology, without the government’s interference. In Alaska, there was no electricity in the shack he inherited. There was no indoor plumbing. There were no hard and fast laws to follow. Survival was the only game. His mental health seemed to improve. Then the long nights came.
Lenora was 13 years old when they moved to Kaneq. She loved Alaska’s beauty and majesty. Although it was a hard life, without creature comforts, she adjusted well. Her father was a difficult taskmaster who taught her to shoot and kill for food, who taught her how to survive. The neighbors taught her mother and her to forage for food, plant gardens and smoke meat. The neighbors helped them build outbuildings, clean the shack left to her father, and in general, to learn the way of the land in Alaska. People who survived there were strong and independent, some escaping from something and some looking to leave the rat race that society was rapidly becoming.
Cora and Ernt’s love was as dysfunctional as Ernt was. Cora could not leave the abusive relationship and often made her daughter responsible for keeping the peace by humoring Ernt to prevent him from exploding. Leni felt responsible for her mother’s safety and was afraid to leave without her. She feared for her mother’s safety. As the years passed, although just a teenager, she began to see her father more clearly than her mother did, and she began to be afraid. She wished her mother would leave him, but her mother kept making excuses for him and forgiving him. She promised he would change, and he often begged for forgiveness, promising his violent outbursts and reactions would never happen again. He even promised to stop drinking, but he never did.
The life was hard and when winter came, the darkness, isolation and weather set her father off and he often had violent tantrums, striking out at Cora, but generally, not at Leni. While attending the one room schoolhouse she met another teenager her age, Matthew Walker, and both quickly bonded. Soon that bond grew into devotion and love, but as her father became more and more irrational, he began to hate the Walkers because of their wealth and influence, and also because Walker wanted to modernize the town, with electricity, plumbing, better roads and guest houses. As he became more and more jealous, belligerent and dangerous, the neighbors rejected him and his ideas. He grew angrier and the Allbrights became more and more isolated from the community.
After a particularly violent incident, Leni and Cora tried to run away, but they skidded off the road and were injured. Cora refused to report Ernt to the police. Instead, after medical treatment, they returned to the cabin and their fear. Another time, after an incident, Matthew and Leni ran in one direction and Cora ran in another, to prevent Ernt from finding them. Cora promised she would call the police and report him. Large Marge, another settler would help her. However, in the end, she refused to press charges and he was soon released from jail. Meanwhile, Matthew and Leni were severely injured when they tried to return to see how Cora was doing. Matthew’s injuries were far worse, and he was placed in a coma, with brain damage. He might never wake up again. He might never walk or talk again. Once more, Cora and Leni returned to the cabin. Things rapidly escalated downward and as Ernt builds a fence to pen them in, they become more and more afraid, and he grows more and more dangerous. Alaska is called “the great alone”. It is a dangerous place that one has to constantly try to contain in order to survive. There was the ever present danger of wild animals, limited supplies in the winter, extreme weather and tides. Self sufficiency was a must, but it was a skill that was learned and acquired through trial and error and community cooperation. Neighbors counted on each other for help. Ernt wanted to isolate them from the community. That was dangerous.
Finally, a series of events caused him to completely erupt. When he started beating Leni, threatening her life, it was the last straw for Cora. She took matters into her own hands, at last. They were on the run, sneaking out of Kaneq, racing to Seattle where her estranged parents lived. They begged for help. Leni was pregnant. They assumed new identities. Their many foolish choices had condemned them to this chaotic life
As the years passed, Leni’s son, Matthew Jr., grows into a happy, obedient boy who brings joy to all of them. Eventually, Leni even gets her college degree. Then her mother falls terminally ill, and she writes out a confession for the crime she had committed. After her death, Leni returned to Alaska with her mother’s ashes and the written confession, as Cora had requested. She reunited with her friends and introduced her son to his relatives and his severely injured father.
The story was about soldiers who suffered from the trauma of war, it was about battered wives with no power, it was about young, romantic love and about dysfunctional love between disturbed and damaged people. It was about the foolish decisions people make. It was about people who wanted to prevent change and some who preferred it. The author states it was about people who had dreams.
The book was obviously well researched. The landscape of Alaska came to life. I felt as if I was there when the darkness that threatened Ernt, came down around him, loosening his fragile self control. The narrator read the character’s personalities so well that I was placed directly into each character’s head, experiencing their individual traumas, and there were traumas galore, so many in fact, that it felt like the author was a bit afraid to leave any experience of life out of the narrative. However, her writing style held my attention, as I wanted to find out how all the myriad problems were resolved, but the narrative often seemed too intense to imagine as a part of reality. There were just too many incidents that made me question whether or not they really could have happened. Could characters really keep making the same excuses and mistakes over and over again without learning from them? After awhile, don’t apologies for the same infractions lose their meaning? Would the “prince and princess” really find each other again? Too many problems piled up, emergencies piled up, dangerous rescues and life threatening situations piled up, so at times, the storyline simply stretched credulity and became like a fairytale.