How do you follow up a bestselling book that spent twenty weeks on the New York Times list and has been fodder for book clubs for years? Well, if you’re Kristin Hannah, you leave World War II and France behind and set your next book in 1970’s Alaska, and the result is The Great Alone. If you enjoyed The Nightingale, you will definitely love The Great Alone, and if you’re one of the rare people who didn’t read The Nightingale, you’ll still love The Great Alone if you’re a fan of dramatic books with an incredible sense of place and time.
I have to warn you, the first chapter or so of the book feels cringingly cliche. We have Ernt, the Vietnam veteran husband and father who’s completely messed up by his time in the war, a volatile abusive man who can’t hold onto a job and who is angry at the world. We have his wife, Cora, who’s always making excuses for him and putting up with his behavior (and yes, I realize that I’m viewing a 1970’s character through a 2018 lens, but even in the 1970’s there was some awareness of domestic violence and Cora sometimes seems willfully blind to the obvious signs that Ernt is trouble), and we have the protagonist, the thirteen year old Leni who has been dragged around from one place to another by her somewhat feckless parents. If you feel you’ve seen them all before, you have some basis for that.
However, once the characters move from the Seattle area to Kaneq, Alaska, painfully unprepared (the classic hippie “living off the land” notion mixed with an invitation from the father of one of Ernt’s Vietnam buddies to come to live near them), the book comes alive. I personally have never been to Alaska, and certainly never came to Alaska in the early 1970’s, but Hannah brings the frontier world to vivid life: the tiny town, the different kinds of homesteads out on the edge of the wilderness, the camaraderie of the locals (one of my favorite characters is Large Marge, a former attorney and a force to be reckoned with) and their eagerness to help these new people get settled and survive. The weather becomes practically another character (which is one reason this would be a good book to read in the winter because no matter how bad things get around here, you can feel relieved that you’re not living in the Kaneq area in winter). The natural world, the turning of the seasons and the wildlife, both helpful and dangerous, fill the book with verisimilitude.
Leni begins to come into her own, living off the land with her parents, finding her place in the local society, and falling in love with one of the only other kids her age in the school. There’s a bit of the Romeo and Juliet in her romance with Matthew, who’s the son of one of the most powerful people in the town, a man with whom Ernt is bitterly feuding.
As the long Alaskan winters close in and Ernt becomes more and more violent and irrational, the book becomes more engrossing. You care about the characters even when they do foolish things, and you find yourself rooting for Leni (and Cora, to a lesser extent) to become the strong, independent woman she is developing into over the course of her time in Alaska. There’s a palpable sense of suspense, mostly involving Ernt. I’m not going to give away the resolution of the plot, though it’s more complicated than you might imagine, but I will say that there is a happy ending of sorts and it’s worth waiting for.