Rarely has the setting played as important a role in a novel as Alaska does in The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah. It becomes a towering character throughout the novel, symbolizing, revealing and battling the other characters. While many conflicts exist and develop among the people, the overriding conflict is man vs. nature. In this case, nature becomes both beauty and beast in Kaneq, Alaska, a remote town on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska.
The story opens in the turbulent 1970s, when Vietnam War protests were in full swing. The novel is told primarily through the eyes of bright, introspective teenager Leni Allbright. Leni is the only child of former Vietnam POW father Ernt, and his devoted, free-spirited wife, Cora. When he inherits a cabin and homestead in Kaneq, Alaska, from a deceased war buddy, the chronically un- or under-employed Ernt whisks his family away from Seattle to Alaska. Leni and her mom long for the happy, smiling Ernt that existed before he went to Vietnam. Now Leni cringes at the shouting and tension as the dark moods overtake her dad. Mom Cora is devoted and determined to keep the family together.
The family holds on to the hope that their new life in Alaska will change everything for the better. While lingering doubts remain, Leni and Cora are encouraged by Ernt’s enthusiasm and determination. They are all overwhelmed by the majestic beauty of their surroundings. “Even with all the pictures Leni had studied and all the articles and books she’d read, she hadn’t been prepared for the wild, spectacular beauty of Alaska. It was otherworldly somehow, magical in its vast expanse, an incomparable landscape of soaring glacier-filled white mountains that ran the length of the horizon, knife-tip points pressed high into a cloudless cornflower-blue sky.”
Leni soon learns that the flip side of the beauty is the danger and darkness that come with it. Residents must be on constant alert for wild bears and wolves. Weather turns treacherous in an instant, and simply navigating the landscape and waterways can turn tragic without warning. As neighbor/general store owner and new friend Large Marge tells the Allbright family: “Alaska isn’t about who you were when you headed this way. It’s about who you become. You are out here in the wild, girls. This isn’t some fable or fairy tale. It’s real. Hard. Winter will be here soon, and believe me, it’s not like any winter you’ve ever experienced. It will cull the herd, and fast. You need to know how to survive. You need to know how to shoot and kill to feed yourselves and keep yourselves safe. You are not the top of the food chain here.”
The Allbrights settle in to their small cabin, and with the help of Large Marge and other locals, they adapt to the everyday requirements of surviving in this whole new otherworldly place. Leni does more than adapt; she comes to embrace it. As she writes in an essay about her adopted state of Alaska: “Most are too tame to handle life up here. But when she gets her hooks in you, she digs deep and holds on, and you become hers. Wild. A lover of cruel beauty and splendid isolation. And God help you, you can’t live anywhere else.”
The novel moves at a leisurely but intriguing pace. Leni goes to the tiny one-room schoolhouse where she falls for fourth-generation Alaskan classmate Matthew Walker. The two bond deeply. They are both mature beyond their years and share a love of books and nature. Conflicts arise as Ernt and Matthew’s dad, Tom Walker, become enemies over businessman Tom’s plans to update the local saloon and install a generator for the small town.
Unfortunately, as they settle into their life in Alaska, her father’s darkness not only reemerges but escalates, particularly in the brutal winters. They see less than six hours of light a day, and snow blankets every single thing. It covers the windowpanes in their small cabin, leaving them nothing but each other to see. As her father becomes angrier and more erratic, the violence escalates. Even considering all of the hazards they face from the climate and landscape, Leni comes to the stark realization that the biggest threat to her and her mom is the man living in the cabin with them. “The natural born predator could seem domesticated, even friendly, could lick your throat affectionately or rub up against you to get a back scratch. But you knew, or should know, that it was a wild thing you lived with, that a collar and leash and a bowl of food might tame the actions of the beast, but couldn’t change its essential nature. In a split second, less time than it took to exhale a breath, that wolf could claim its nature and turn, fangs bared.”
Her mother always makes excuses for him and tells her “baby girl” not to trouble herself, but the violence gets worse. When their precarious situation turns to crisis, Leni and her mom are faced with shattering choices to make.
The gripping plot and interesting characters are enough to make this book a very worthwhile read. However, when a novel ignites such interest and fascination in the setting in which it takes place, it is truly a special “find.”