“The Great Alone” by Kristin Hannah is another winner from the author of the bestseller “The Nightingale.” There are not enough adjectives in the English language to describe the greatness of this novel. It is an adventure story where readers feel they are put in the middle of the Alaskan frontier. It is a relationship story that also confronts abuse and obsession. And it is a love story between a mother/daughter, father/son and two young adults as well as the land and those who live on it.
The plot begins with the Allbright family moving to Alaska after a Vietnam buddy willed them a cabin by the Kenai River. The daughter, Leni, hopes that this new start will lead to a better future for her family since her father can never keep a job. At first, Alaska seems to be the answer to their prayers. In a wild, remote corner of the state, they find a fiercely independent community of strong men and even stronger women.
Ernt Allbright is a Vietnam POW who has returned home with PTSD, suffering sleepless nights, flashbacks, nightmares and a volatile behavior. His wife, Cora, is consumed by caring for their daughter. Leni tries to understand her parents and is someone who must grow up way too fast, becoming her mother’s protector from her abusive father. She falls in love with Matthew Walker, who wants to show her happiness, loyalty and security. His father, Tom, is someone who perceptively realizes that the Alaskan environment should be modernized and that his son should no longer be isolated and enclosed. He has a feud with Ernt and Mad Earl, who team up in their resentments of government, the military, and the Walker family. Representing an Alaskan homesteader is Large Marge, a no-nonsense woman who tries to help the Allbright women see the light. But the setting of Alaska is also a character, a place of beauty and danger. A word of warning: Read it with a tissue box nearby because this story is an emotional roller coaster ride.
Elise Cooper: Why the Alaska setting?
Kristin Hannah: My family has a long history there. In the late ’70s, my mom and dad went up and fell in love with Alaska. They met a woman and her daughter who were homesteaders there. Afterward, they decided to join in to build a fishing lodge on the Kenai River. Flash forward three generations and we are still running it. Since I still go every few years, I wanted to write about the Alaska I know.
EC: Do you see Alaska as a character in your book?
KH: Absolutely! It is the genesis of the book. I find it a remarkable place and have a love and fear for it. I titled this novel “The Great Alone” because it is one of three nicknames for the state. Besides this one, it is also called “The Land of the Midnight Sun” and “The Last Frontier.” The nickname and my title came about from Alaska being such a wild landscape and the people who live there are rugged, fierce and individualists. It is what the poet Robert Service called Alaska. The primal essence of the book is survival. The actual day-to-day survival in these incredibly harsh conditions depends on the individual who needs to be tough.
EC: Do you think readers will get a glimpse of what Alaska is really like?
KH: I hope so. All the details in the book still exist today. I put in the book about the forbearing winters, how the light in summer never ends, to survive people need to hunt. The family in the book lives off the land by hunting, fishing and gardening. It is a remote geographical area from the Continental U.S. Eighty percent of Alaska still has no roads at all. In the winter, rivers become the highways and in the summer, it is difficult to get around. During the winter months, they must live in the dark for months and months at temperatures well below zero. The Last Frontier nickname comes into play because there is the need for a fundamental spirit to be willing to fight nature all the time. I put in the book the statistics that there are 1,000 ways to die and 5 in 1,000 go missing, never to be found. Just running out of gas can kill you.
EC: In the novel you reference “The Call Of The Wild” by Jack London
KH: Yes, I had my main character, Leni, read it as a great introduction to where she was going to live. Another book, “Into The Wild,” shows the dangers of Alaska. It is about a college student who tries to live there during the winter in a school bus. Unfortunately, he dies. Both books show how Alaska can be beautiful, seductive and dangerous.
EC: Can you describe your characters, starting with Large Marge?
KH: She is one of my favorites. As Leni soon realizes, “Everyone up here had two stories: the life before and the life now. If you wanted to pray to a weirdo god or live in a school bus or marry a goose, no one in Alaska was going to say crap to you.” Large Marge is a former prosecutor in Washington, D.C., who now runs the general store for the community. Everyone toed the line with her. She tried to help the Allbright women during the really dark times, but she also understood the battle was Cora’s to fight and that she must save herself.
EC: What about Mad Earl?
KH: He has resentment against the government. But remember, almost everyone in his family did not go along with his attitude. He was probably the worst person Ernt could have met. Just as throughout the U.S., in Alaska there are pockets of these “survivalists.” Through him, I was able to show the 1970s was a time of political and social unrest, including the Vietnam War that brought such division.
EC: You did a good job making Ernt a sympathetic figure in the beginning, but by the middle of the book he was a hateful character.
KH: He is someone who suffered from PTSD and mental illness that went undiagnosed. My personal take is that he was troubled before he went off to war and became trapped by his own demons. He ultimately evolves into the villain. In the remote isolated cabin, he becomes a threat to his daughter and wife. At the end of the story, when Leni finds his medals and the newspaper clip showing his ghostly features after returning home, I hope it is a reminder that there was a time he was not despised.
EC: He was a Vietnam veteran?
KH: Yes. As a POW he was tortured for his country. I came of age during the Vietnam War, actually I was the same age as Leni. I wore one of those POW bracelets for years, supporting a captain, my friend’s dad, who never came home. I touched on it in the book — the shameful way people who served were treated when they came home, being called “baby killers.” Then, and now, I do not think we offer enough services, care, jobs and understanding to those who have come home after putting their lives on the line for us. This is not the first book I wrote about PTSD.
EC: What is the other novel?
KH: It is called “Home Front,” and is about a female Black Hawk helicopter pilot who has PTSD and the effects the war had on her. There is a stigma to ask for help. These people are trained to be warriors and then told to ask for help, but these are dynamically opposite. I think it is very important in books, films and the media to keep talking about the challenges that those serving and their families face after coming home. I wanted to show in both books how someone who comes home emotionally damaged changes the family dynamics.
EC: Cora suffered from abuse and many of these women also have a hard time asking for help?
KH: Sadly, in our society there are a lot of women who stay in abusive situations. I describe Cora as a victim and mother. She would do anything for her daughter except leave her husband. Ernt and Cora have a toxic and tragic love that is all consuming. She describes the relationship as if he has cancer and is sick. He describes it as similar to heroin. Both are aware of the deep flaw in their love. They represent the dark side of love. A love gone wrong that was probably more of an obsession. She was dependent on him and he needed the control. I put in a scene in the book between Cora and another character, Tom Walker, where she saw what her life could be if she had the strength to change it. It was tragic she didn’t.
EC: Does Matthew and Leni’s relationship represent what love should be?
KH: This is the dream — romantic, love at first sight where they are meant to be together. A love that overcomes everything and lasts. They both sacrificed for each other.
EC: There is a feud between Ernt and Tom similar to “West Side Story.”
KH: I thought of it as “Romeo and Juliet.” The teenage love of Matthew and Leni that goes against their parents with increasing risk. Even in the extraordinary world of Alaska, they were able to find a way for their love.
EC: How would you describe Leni’s and Cora’s relationship?
KH: Leni reversed roles with her mother and was the one with common sense. She knew she had to sacrifice her own feelings and desires for her mother. She was the strong one who was wise beyond her years. The moment she learned about the abuse everything in the book pivots. This quote describes the book plot going forward, “Leni saw suddenly how hope could break you, how it was a shiny lure for the unwary. What happened to you if you hoped too hard for the best and got the worst?” Unlike Tom, who put Matthew first and stood by his son, Cora could not put her daughter first. Leni knew her mother was broken and as tragic as her father. But through Tom, Leni saw what a family could be — the family she wanted.
EC: There is a strong love between Leni and Cora. They refer to themselves as “two of a kind,” and “two peas in a pod.” Please explain.
KH: Both loved each other unconditionally. I wrote in this quote by Cora, “Love doesn’t fade or die, baby girl.” And then Leni realizes that the love she felt for her mother was “a durable thing, as vast as this landscape, as immutable as the sea. Stronger than time itself.” This is also true of my personal feelings as this book freed me to write how they loved, protected, and survived together. I lost my mother when I was young and didn’t realize for a number of years that I never wrote mother/daughter adult relationships. Either they were difficult for me to imagine or so painful that my subconscious was protecting me. I am really glad I wrote this and enjoyed writing it.
EC: Another powerful quote: “Instinctively, she lifted her camera and minimized her view of the world. It was how she managed her memories, how she processed the world. In pictures. With a camera, she could crop and reframe her life.” What was your thought process?
KH: I was thinking how Leni came from a broken and dysfunctional family. All of that is a way for her to say, “I will choose which memories I will keep, and which I will shelve.”
EC: What do you want readers to get out of the book?
KH: For me, the best books part a curtain and reveal a world that people do not know exists. This is what I wanted “The Great Alone” to do for Alaska and its people. It is a complex look at love and survival that are competing forces in the novel. I think most of my books are about a woman fighting incredible odds and coming into her own successfully.