It was interesting to read “The Great Alone”, during this time of corona virus semi-lockdown in Battambang in Cambodia. Kristin Hannah describes the life of one small family who decide to move to a remote region of Alaska. They hope to begin a new life “close to nature” and far away from modern “civilization”. Actually this family really just involves three people, Cora Allbright, her husband Ernt and their teenage daughter Leni.
This novel rises above the level of a sophisticated romance story in two ways. Firstly the descriptions of life in remote Alaska are detailed and harsh. There is no room for romantic illusion in the fiercely cold Alaskan Winter when you are living in an isolated shack with no electricity or other utilities. The three members of this family learn how to adapt fast by planting vegetables, smoking fish, raising chickens and goats and cutting logs to stay warm in the winter. The encounters with eagles, bears, hares and wolves are all well-woven into the real fabric of the story and do not feature as “added” extras. Accidents and disasters happen regularly there. Life is fragile and all families are vulnerable as they have chosen to live on the edge or on the frontier as in the old days. The simple solidarity of nearby neighbours enable this family to survive their first winter. The radical difference between such a rural life-style and a modern urban one is clearly depicted as is the transition or these three urbanites to three independent rural dwellers.
However the real strength of this novel is in its second important characteristic. Leni experiences the love relationship between her parents as a mystery at first. She realizes that since Ernt returned from Vietnam, he is troubled and violent in a way that he was not before he went. Cora loves him and tries to love him back to good mental health. She fails. Even the move to Alaska is in response to Ernt’s desire for a new start that will “save” him so to speak. He keeps losing jobs and drinks too much. The move to Alaska does not solve his problem which could be “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)”. The last novel that I reviewed, “The Long Take” by Robin Robertson, showed that perhaps what is most traumatic in PTSD is not the harm that one suffers at the hands of others in war but the harm that one inflicts on others during war. In any case, Ernt refuses to face this challenge and tries to create his own “private”, “safe” world but ends up periodically beating first his wife and then his daughter. It is a pity that he never met a person like Dr. Edith Eger of “The Choice”. Ernt’s gradual descent into tyrannical partner and physical abuser through a series of painful family incidents is credible and vivid. Cora’s need for love and sexual intimacy allows the relationship to become ever more toxic. Only when Ernt goes for her daughter does the “Grizzly Bear” Mom appear to protect Leni.
In the midst of this chaos of family disintegration, Leni discovers love in her friendship with local lad, Matthew, who suffers a tragic accident while trying to rescue her. The pain of horrific injuries is not passed over lightly, nor is Cora’s final struggle with cancer.
While there are many details in the story that seem a bit off-key or tacky, it is the intricate description of the toxic relationship between Ernt and Cora that sets this novel on a different plane. There must be many women and children silently enduring domestic physical and verbal abuse from a dominant male partner as described in the novel.