It took me a couple of months of dallying in front of the top picks table at Bookshop Santa Cruz, before I finally picked up The Great Alone and walked it to the counter. I had been wooed by the cover, tempted by the author, moved by the remote setting and yet, a book about a Vietnam war veteran; well, it’s up there with potato famine books, in terms of depressing to read. Now I come to think of it, I had experienced much the same level of malaise when it came to reading The Nightingale, also by Kristin Hannah. That time I had just completed the exceptional All the Light We Cannot See and was certain that I couldn’t bear to read “another war novel”. Really, I need to check myself sometimes, lest I become total numpty!
The Great Alone is as beautiful as it is sad and believe me when I say, parts of this book are very sad indeed. Hannah tells the story of Leni, who as a young teenager in the 1970s who moves to Alaska with her parents, Cora and Ernt Allbright. Ernt has been gifted a piece of land, with a house, by a soldier with whom he served in Vietnam. To the Allbrights this represents the fresh start they need and a chance for financial independence. The problem is that this is Alaska. You need to be tough and as much as you might be able to adapt to what the environment demands, the long dark winters can damage the soul, particularly if you are a veteran with PTSD issues.
If you read The Nightingale, you will remember the tragic love story that it embodied and so here, love abounds. Cora is a woman tied to a flawed husband, Leni is a teenager finding love but scarred by her parents mistakes. Then there’s the love of the land and the environment of Alaska itself. I think that my favorite book of last year was probably Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, and in some ways, this was just as lovely with regard to descriptions of the natural environment. Alaska leaps out of the page at you; the beauty, the nature and the living conditions for those in the northernmost state. Hannah is really great at depicting the type of character drawn to Alaska; the runaways, the homesteaders, those looking for a fresh start and the others who are trying to escape something, like Ernt Allbright himself.
As sad as this story is, I simply couldn’t put it down. It’s a read every bit as magical as its predecessor, The Nightingale. I simply can’t recommend it enough. Order it, borrow it, but just be sure to read it!