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 Nightingale

9781466850606_p0_v3_s192x300Although Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale has hovered on the New York Times top ten for a while, I resisted reading this story of German-occupied France during World War II.  Maybe I wasn’t ready for the angst of another Tatiana de Rosnay like tale of two sisters who join the Resistance, one wholeheartedly, the other reluctantly.  Other Hannah books have always engulfed me in tears – Homefront, Night Road, Winter Garden – and maybe I wasn’t in the mood for horror and angst.  But when an old friend urged me to read the book, so we could talk about it – I did – and all my expectations were met.

Hannah’s descriptions of torture and cruelty are difficult to fathom, but a reminder of how horribly Jewish prisoners were treated.  The complicity of the Vichy government is a major character, along with the two sisters – Isobelle and Vienn who each fights in her own way to obstruct the takeover of France, and protect her family.

The historical novel is based on a conglomeration of stories, but two real heroines stand out as the inspiration for the two main characters. Andrée de Jongh, a 19 year old Belgian, like Isobelle as the nightingale spy for the Resistance, was inspired by  World War I heroine Edith Cavell.  De Jongh established the Comet Escape Line, a secret network of people who risked their lives to help Allied servicemen escape over the Pyrenees to Spain.  In The Nightingale, young and beautiful Isobelle leads downed pilots over the mountains to safety in San Sebastian.

Her sister, Viann, hides Jewish children in a Catholic orphanage until they can be reunited with their families after the war – close to the real story of Irena Sendler, who smuggled children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and hid them in orphanages or convents. Sendler made lists of the children’s names and family connections and hid them in jars in her garden – just as Vienn did in The Nightingale – so that someday she could find the children and tell them who they were.

Hannah tempers the misery with some romance and adventure, and the story is compelling.  Once started, I found it hard to stop, but the novel left me bereft, despite the somewhat happy ending.

Reviews of Other Hannah books: