Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
is another winner from the author of the bestseller The
Nightingale. There are not enough adjectives in the
English language to describe the greatness of this novel.
It is an adventure story where readers feel they are put in
the middle of the Alaskan frontier; it is a relationship story
that also confronts abuse and obsession; and it is a love
story between a mother/daughter, father/son, and two young
adults as well as the land and those who lived on it.
Hannah titled this novel, The Great Alone, because
“Alaska is such a wild landscape and the people who
live there are rugged, fierce, and individualists. It is what
the poet Robert Service called Alaska. The primal essence
of the book is survival. The actual day-to-day survival in
these incredibly harsh conditions depends on the individual
who needs to be tough. It is a remote geographical area from
the Continental US. 80% of Alaska still has no roads at all.
In the winter rivers become the highways and in the summer,
it is difficult to get around.”
The plot begins with the Allbright family moving to Alaska
after a Vietnam buddy willed them a cabin by the Kenai River.
The daughter Leni hopes that this new start will lead to a
better future for her family since her father can never keep
a job. At first, Alaska seems to be the answer to their prayers.
In a wild, remote corner of the state, they find a fiercely
independent community of strong men and even stronger women.
The generosity of the locals makes up for the Allbrights’
lack of preparation and dwindling resources. Through the Allbright’s
story readers will encounter the rugged Alaskan landscape
and the different relationship dynamics that will form amongst
is also the story of how seven characters must not only fight
nature, but help those fight their own demons. Ernt Allbright
is a Vietnam POW who has returned home with PTSD, suffering
sleepless nights, flashbacks, nightmares and a volatile behavior.
His wife Cora is consumed by caring for their daughter. Leni
tries to understand her parents and is someone who must grow
up way too fast, becoming her mother’s protector from
her abusive father. She falls in love with Matthew Walker
who wants to show her happiness, loyalty, and security. His
father Tom is someone who perceptively realizes that the Alaskan
environment must be modernized, and his son should no longer
be isolated and enclosed. He has a feud with Ernt and Mad
Earl, who team up in their resentments of government, the
military, and the Walker family. Representing an Alaskan homesteader
is Large Marge, a no-nonsense woman who tries to help the
Allbright women see the light.
There are two compelling issues the author delves into, abuse
and PTSD. “I wrote Ernt as someone who suffers from
PTSD and mental illness that went undiagnosed. My personal
take is that he was troubled before he went off to war and
became trapped by his own demons. He ultimately evolves into
the villain. In the remote isolated cabin, he becomes a threat
to his daughter and wife. At the end of the story when Leni
finds his medals and the newspaper clip showing his ghostly
features after returning home, I hope it is a reminder that
there was a time he was not despised.”
Regarding the violence, Ernt has toward his wife, “I
wanted to show readers they had a toxic relationship. Cora
would do anything for her daughter except leave her husband.
She describes the relationship as if he has cancer and is
sick. He describes it as similar to heroin. Both are aware
of the deep flaw in their love. They represent the dark side
of love. A love gone wrong that was probably more of an obsession.
On the other hand, Leni and Matthew’s relationship is
a dream, romantic, love at first sight where they are meant
to be together. A love that overcomes everything and lasts.
They both sacrificed for each other.”
But the setting of Alaska is also a character, a place of
beauty and danger. Readers discover the state with its summers
of constant light, ferocious winters that blankets eighteen
hours of night and enormous amounts of snow, as well as the
need for each person to protect themselves as they learn to
raise vegetables, overcome the isolation and remoteness, and
hunt, making sure that nothing goes to waste.
An added bonus is how Hannah intertwines events of the 1970s
into this novel. She puts in historical tidbits including
Ted Bundy, Patty Hearst, the Munich Olympics, punk rock, and
the latest novel of Stephen King. “I wrote in the character
Mad Earl as a very bad influence on Ernt. He has resentment
against the government. But remember, almost everyone in his
family did not go along with his attitude. He was probably
the worst person Ernt could have met. Just as throughout the
US, in Alaska there are pockets of these ‘Survivalists.’
Through him I was able to show the 1970s was a time of political
and social unrest including the Vietnam War that brought such
The Great Alone is a tale of love, despair, and hope
within the dangerous frontier. This story takes readers on
a journey hunting with Leni, seeing the Alaska landscape,
and trying to process how one individual who supposedly loves
his family can be so cruel. But it is also an optimistic look
at how Leni’s strength grows throughout the book as
she turns from naïve adolescent to a grown woman. A word
of warning, read it with a tissue box nearby because this
story is an emotional roller coaster ride.