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 Quality of Silence

9781101903674_p0_v4_s192x300Rosamund Lupton’s newest suspense thriller – The Quality of Silence – had my undivided attention throughout the day.  Following a mother and her deaf daughter as they drove a ten ton rig in a fast-paced chase through the Arctic cold, I could not put the book down until I finished.  What a ride.

The story focuses on Ruby, a clever ten year old who was born deaf, and her mother, Yasmin, a beautiful astrophysicist, as they search for Matt, father and husband presumed to be dead in a lethal explosion at an Eskimo village.  Not willing to believe he is dead, the mother and daughter hitch a ride along the Dalton Highway in Alaska to the Arctic Circle to find him.  When the driver of the truck has a stroke, Yasmin takes the wheel to drive into a snowstorm and across narrow frozen rivers.  Afraid to leave Ruby to try to communicate with strangers, she takes her along, but when they realize they are being followed, the tension escalates.

Villains come from obvious as well as insidious sources.  Lupton uses the effects of fracking on the environment as the major villain in the story, with  sharp observations about its effects on the ecosystem, and the dire consequences for the environment in the future.  As a ten year old deaf child, Ruby feels excluded from friends at her mainstreamed school as she deals with silent bullies.  And, Yasmin worries that her wildlife documentary-maker husband, Matt, who has been working for months in the Arctic night, has betrayed her with an Inupiaq woman; his last email – “I kissed her because I missed you.”

Lupton cleverly uses Ruby’s young voice as a distraction from the terror, and grounds the story in the family dynamics.  Ruby’s optimism was often a welcome distraction from the nail-biting drama.

All ends well with the bad guys getting their due, thanks to Ruby and her tech savvy.  Once again, Lupton delivers  a satisfying and compelling tale.  All of Lupton’s books offer a thrilling ride, but this one was chilling.

I look forward to the next one.

Reviews of Other Lupton books:  


Johann Sebastian Humpbach

71tLxPX7qoLWinter is whale season on Maui, when the humpbacks return from theGetAttachment-1.aspx cold Alaskan waters to play and mate in the warm Hawaiian sun.  Inspired by the island, the whales, and her students, retired teacher Jamie David created a story targeted for middle schoolers in Johann Sebastian Humpbach.  David personifies the singing whale and creates an adventure with twelve year-old local twins, who save him from a villain determined to exploit Johann’s talent.  With a glossary of Hawaiian vocabulary, the book offers a souvenir of Maui for young visitors, and fond memories of whale singing for those lucky enough to have heard it.

Maui Sunset

Maui Sunset

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.