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 Wild Places – Are There Any Left?

Ever want a tree like Christopher Robin’s where you could send Pooh up in a balloon for honey?  Robert Marfarlane starts The Wild Places by climbing up a beechwood, leaning against a sturdy branch, and surveying the lower forty.  Not liking what he sees in urban Cambridge, he plans a quest to discover the wild places that still exist.

Macfarlane brings you with him, as he travels through remote valleys, moors, summits, holloways, and ridges, swims the rivers, and sleeps under the skies, in search of untouched beauty.  Mapping his journey, he marvels that “ (the) landscape was here long before we were even dreamed.  It watched us arrive.”  He notes the history of places, and discards the notion that “wild places had to be…outside history.”

Reading Macfarlane’s The Wild Places is a welcome respite –  written in calming, beautiful language and set in England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland – with literary references to Thomas Hardy, Coleridge, Orwell, and others.   In this nonfiction account of a journey to places still untouched and marred by civilization, Macfarlane becomes a modern Thoreau, with more attention to trees and birds than philosophy.

Only a few moments in the book bring back the reality of civilization:  the dead seagull with oil on its wings, the mention of trees growing again at Chernobyl, and his travel companion and mentor dieing.

Ultimately, he comes back to where he started, with the understanding that life goes on and the wild places will hopefully survive:  “…the weed thrusting through the pavement, the tree root impudently cracking a carapace of tarmac: these were wild signs, as much as the storm wave and the snowflake…”

The book is organized in a series of essays on sites visited on the journey:  island, valley, river-mouth…  You could dive into any chapter and get the feeling of poetic language and awe for the beauty of nature.

But, this is one of those books to read slowly, savor, keep on the shelf, and revisit.   Especially, when you need to vicariously be Macfarlane ”…walking out of winter.”