Before I jump into The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah, I have to remark upon how weird of a reader I am. I read the first half of the book between April 30 and July 9. Then I read the entire second half today. I always do this with books. I don’t know why.
Anyhow, Hannah’s book sets us in the Alaskan wilderness during the 1970s and 1980s, where Ernt Allbright, a former prisoner-of-war and Vietnam veteran, moves his wife, Cora and 13-year-old daughter, Leni, to for a “fresh start.” Ernt, who is a drunk suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder before it had such a name, is also abusive toward Cora and as tends to be the case, he’s abusive toward her with no care to a young child being a witness to it.
Nonetheless, Cora and Leni both hold onto the hope that the Last Frontier will be a new beginning. Instead, unfortunately, our baggage follows us wherever we roam, whether it’s the suburbs of Seattle, where they originally were from, or on the outskirts of the survival wilderness of Alaska. An abuser is an abuser.
Moving to Alaska, where people have to be survivalists to emerge unscathed from harsh winters, dangerous conditions and animals, plays into Ernt’s deteriorating mind and delusions about how the world is going to hell and he needs to prepare his family for nuclear disaster, pandemics and/or whatever calamity may befall them.
But of course, the biggest danger Cora and Leni face is the man who claims the mantle of “husband” and “father” to them.
However, as much as Ernt is quite literally the grizzly bear in the tiny cabin they inhabit — it occurred to me about three-fourths of the way through the novel that everyone talks about the danger of bears when in the Alaska wilderness and to my knowledge, Hannah never has any of the characters encounter one until I realized that Ernt is the bear — he’s still very much a dangerous, peripheral character to what is actually heart of the story: The mother-daughter relationship between Cora and Leni.
Hannah does a masterful job of sketching Leni’s arc as a 13-year-old girl who seems to understand something is amiss, but also, she’s 13 and she loves her dad. And she loves her mom and her mom wouldn’t stay with her dad, if he was abusive, right? This is what “love” is to Leni. It’s all she’s ever known. The arc then turns eventually to where Leni resigns herself to the fact that her parents are like this, two broken people in a twisted, toxic love web. And toward adulthood, her resigned state morphs into active, pulsating hatred for her father. For what he’s done to her mother. For what he’s done to them.
And as no young girl or teen ought to, Leni shoulders quite a bit of burden. Mind you, aside from the fact of having to contribute to their basic survival in Alaska, which in and of itself is a feat of endurance, hard work and mettle, she’s also dealing with that egg shell life around her dad and feeling like she can’t abandon her mother to him.
In that way, Leni represents the “great alone.” All of which is to set up the fact of Matthew Walker’s existence, someone of the same age and who comes from a loving, rich family in Alaska. The Walker family exists as Alaskan royalty, but their kindness and empathy belies the moniker. Leni, so tuned to her parents’ drama, never quite realized the depth of her loneliness and absence of a healthy love until she and Matthew met.
There were a lot of intentional stop-and-starts with Cora and Leni trying, and failing, to escape Ernt. I believe that was an intentional choice from Hannah to reflect the reality of how difficult it was and is for women to leave abusive men, even with a child involved. It was maddening! I was so ready for a bear to eat Ernt or for Tom Walker, Matthew’s father, to finally finish him off. But I think, just as Hannah enmeshed us in the egg shell lifestyle of these women, she also enmeshed us readers in the complex web of domestic abuse and how cyclical it can be.
One of these sad stop-and-starts was when Matthew intervened on Ernt’s abuse and helped Leni escape. They fled to a hiking spot in the wilderness. Unfortunately, Leni fell through a crevice and was injured. Matthew, who had lost his mother to drowning under the ice at the age of 13, didn’t want that to happen again, So, he tries to save Leni and instead, also falls, severely hurting himself. They think he will be in a vegetative state.
Meanwhile, Ernt ends up in jail, but Cora doesn’t press charges. He shows up back at the house and that was so dang deflating.
Hannah’s book was an interesting one because there were a few moments that represented traditional “climaxes” and made me wonder, how is this going to continue another X number of pages?
The first of these is when Tom Walker, Large Marge, a black woman who works at the General Store (one minor criticism of the book is that Large Marge sort of feels like the “magical negro” trope), and Thelma, the daughter of Mad Earl (who Ernt spins up conspiracies with, fueling each others’ paranoia), set Ernt straight on his domestic abuse. They make him go work on the oil fields in another city in Alaska. I was shocked and so excited about that! Because, as a reader, I also felt like I was existing within the pages of this book on Cora and Leni’s egg shells. I was always waiting for Ernt to explode. To gaslight. To pretend to apologize. And I never expected these powerful, strong women to step in and tell Ernt off so directly.
I was so excited when the good characters of the town came together to tell the coward, Ernt, that they weren’t going to stand for this. And that also represents the counterintuitive aspect of the Last Frontier. Alaska attracts people who want to live off the grid, who revel in the grind of surviving and embody perhaps more than any American, the idea of rugged individualism. Yet, to truly survive in the Alaskan wilderness, the small communities, such as the one our characters are living in, depend on each other. They work together. They watch out for each other. It’s as much communal survival as it is individual survival.
Cora and Leni quite frankly wouldn’t have survived Ernt or the Alaskan wilderness, if not for those characters and that sense of community. Ernt and his paranoia never grasped that about Alaska.
The next of these climactic moments is when Ernt learns that Leni was impregnated by Matthew. Since he hates the Walkers, this was perhaps the most dangerous moment in the book for Leni. And it was because it represented the first time Ernt directed his anger at her. The coward, upon learning his daughter is pregnant, responds by savagely punching her.
Cora could and did take the abuse for years, but attacking Leni? As Cora said, not her Leni. She shoots and kills Ernt.
Again, as this point, there was still a good 125 pages left and I’m like, What?! How?! They’ve finally rid themselves of their problem.
However, Hannah has more she wants to meditate on. She’s already sketched out a masterful story about a mother and a daughter surviving, not just the Alaskan wilderness, but a domestic violence situation, and also included a blossoming young love story between Leni and Matthew, but now, since this is a work of historical fiction, Hannah wants to tell the story of how the law works against women, both in this time in the 1970s, and quite frankly, still today. How would the law react to a husband being shot in the back, Cora and Leni reason? Not so well.
Within a lot of people’s current lifetimes, the 1970s was only beginning as an awakening of the domestic violence issue, at least as it concerned the law. Certainly, women had carried the brunt and burden of this violence for untold years prior. That “awakening” wasn’t sudden and would still take years into the future to better develop well into the 1990s.
That’s why Cora and Leni decide to hide Ernt’s body, and with the help of Large Marge, fake their deaths and begin new lives back in Seattle.
There, Cora and Leni’s relationship gets back on to better footing, as does Cora’s relationship with her own parents who help them, and they raise Matthew Junior, or MJ. After about seven years have passed, Cora dies due to lung cancer. She views the lung cancer as the karma for what she did to Ernt, which is sad, and writes a deathbed confession for the “murder,” hoping to exonerate and free Leni.
Instead, Leni stupidly goes to Alaska and confesses her role in the “murder” and coverup, resulting in a prison stay. In perhaps the weakest moment of the book, Large Marge literally barges into the courtroom, yells at the judge and Tom Walker is able to get the governor to free Leni. I felt like Hannah could have cut that section. It wasn’t quite needed.
But the final big part of the book that is needed is for Leni to return to her home, Alaska, which has gotten its hooks into her, and to see Matthew with their son. Matthew has actually recovered a great deal, thanks to his yearning for Leni giving him the impetus to keep going. He’s become a prolific, talented painter, often writing “her” across the canvas. “Her” here means Leni.
After hundreds of pages of bleak, relentless pain and grief for a lot of our characters involved, but primarily Cora, Leni and Matthew, we finally get a reprieve at the end. Happiness. Leni and Matthew back together. Back in Alaska. And living happy, successful lives. Not only surviving, but thriving. And contrary to what Ernt though, Alaska could progress into the 21st century and still be Alaska.
The best Stephen King books have a villain who is supernatural or horrific in some way. That villain, obviously, represents the ostensible antagonist for the main characters in the novel. But the real danger is almost always fellow humans who are affecting the characters in other ways while they also deal with the villain in question.
In that same way, Hannah’s brilliant book sets up the Alaskan wilderness as that villainous character to be survived, but in reality, the real danger affecting the characters is Ernt and his controlling personality (at one point, he builds a wall around their property) and domestic abuse.
That layered approach worked so well here and made for effective foils for us to root for Leni (and then for her and Matthew to make it). And as hard as it can be to understand why someone being abused by a significant other stays, still stays and stays some more, Hannah showed how and why that happens for Cora. It’s not easy to read and it’s frustrating and maddening and all those things, but if you’re not empathizing with Cora and her decisions, as fraught as they can be, then perhaps that’s part of the problem. The orientation too often gets misdirected to the victim and questioning them and away from the one doing the victimizing. Even talking about such women as “battered women” misdirects the orientation.
I hope, if even in a small way, Hannah’s book, despite being fiction, helps us to recalibrate and re-orient how we see domestic violence situations.
If it wasn’t clear, I highly recommend The Great Alone. In addition to the meditations on domestic violence and blossoming love, Hannah’s book also serves as a “love letter,” as she notes, to Alaska. And I must say, there’s a part of me, a deeply human part of me, who seeks to validate my own self-worth, as Cora sought, through the baptism by … ice … that Alaska would represent.
And there’s also a part of me that knows, like Hannah, that such a world isn’t actually for us. But even so, there’s something human about us that romanticizes returning to that minimalistic, brutish survival living. I’m not sure what that is, but its achingly, beautifully manifest in The Great Alone.