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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To the Bright Edge of the World

9780316242851_p0_v5_s192x300    Eowan Ivey’s To the Bright Edge of the World had me remembering the startling blue of the icebergs and the crisp cold of the Alaskan air when I visited several years ago. Ivey’s story is based on the actual 1885 expedition of Colonel Allen Forrester, and references diaries and letters from the exploration of the newly acquired Alaskan Territory as the foundation for a compelling epistolary novel.

The real Forrester explored over a thousand miles of wilderness and become the first to chart the Copper River, leading an expedition as significant as Lewis and Clark’s.  The novel uses the imagined letters of Colonel Forrester to his wife, Sophie, as well as his formal accounting of his findings as he travels the unexplored Wolverine River area in Northern Alaska with a small crew.

Forced to remain behind because of her pregnancy, Sophie keeps her own journal and sends letters to her husband.  When she miscarries, Sophie, a former schoolteacher with a penchant for studying birds, purchases a camera, and embarks on her own expedition to capture pictures of nesting birds in the woods surrounding her home at Vancouver Barracks in Washington.

As Allen Forrester suffers starvation, disease, and bitter cold traveling through uncharted Territory, he also discovers the power of the local culture, and Ivey weaves old otherworldly legends into her tale, treating them with respect and awe.  The women with feathers growing out of their wrists, calmly washing clothes by the river full of geese; the old medicine man with the black hat who can fly and transform into a raven who steals Sophie’s hair comb; the monster in the river who almost kills one of Forrester’s men – all add flavor to the steady reporting of the mundane as well as the explorer’s  battle with the unforgiving elements of nature.

Ivey grounds the story in the present by creating a fictional descendant of Forrester, Walter, who is seeking a home for the artifacts and papers he has inherited.  Walter is getting old, and has started a correspondence with Josh, the museum curator in  Alaska, who has agreed to digitize the papers and establish an exhibit. Through Josh, Ivey offers pictures interspersed through the narrative, and updates on the current political and environmental turmoil.  Ivey muses on the power and beauty of Nature, and comments on the disconnect between preserving the culture of the past while moving on with demands of the present.

“How can we say this person is valued less or more, is better or worse, because they are a part of one culture or another, and why would we want to?”

To the Bright Edge of the World combines adventure, history, and romance with discovery – not only of forbidding new land but also of inner truths.  As a reward for both Allen and Sophie, as well as for the reader, Ivey projects a fictional continuation in the ending as the couple continues to explore – both plausible and satisfying.  A fellow reader suggested this book would be both engaging and uplifting – she was right.