The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah explores contradiction, not in the sense of the quality of the book itself, but in the themes that permeate every page. These themes include the fragility and strength of people’s character, the beauty and horror of the Alaskan forests, wild and tamed spirits that inhabit those wildernesses, and the love and hate we sometimes feel for those we cherish.
The story is told mainly from the point of view of Leni Allbright. She is a thirteen-year-old dealing with her mother, Cora, a poster child for the 1970s hippie movement, and her father, Ernt, a former soldier who was a Prisoner of War in Vietnam. Ernt is moody, violent, and unable to hold down a job. Cora is desperate to have the man she married return, not the shell of him that the war spit back. Leni is caught in the middle of Ernt’s violent outbursts and Cora’s tears in their wake. Desperate for a do-over, Ernt decides to move his family from Seattle to Alaska, hoping a change in scenery will suture the pieces of his spirit back together.
When they arrive, they meet Large Marge, a former lawyer and now the owner of a local general store, who becomes their friend and guide to how to survive their first Alaskan winter. They then meet Tom Walker, a rich landowner, and his son, Matt. Because of Tom’s wealth, Ernt grows to resent him. Meanwhile, Cora develops a not-so-hidden attraction to him, which makes Ernt even angrier. Matt and Leni are classmates, and they, too, begin to have romantic feelings for each other; the story then takes a Romeo and Juliet turn.
While Ernt begins to show signs of recovery in the long days of summer, in the winter, when nights are long, and in the darkness, his more broken self takes over. Ernt went to Alaska for the great emptiness, but what comes to fill the void within him will put the lives of his wife and daughter in danger. In the words of Large Marge:
Two kinds of folks come up to Alaska, Cora. People running to something and people running away from something. The second kind—you want to keep your eye out for them.
The situation takes a turn for the horrifying when Ernt decides to build a wall between his home and the rest of the community. Leni has to choose between happiness with Matt and protecting her mother from her unhinged father.
It was hard to read The Great Alone without thinking of the Greek phrase Kalon Kakon, meaning “beautiful evil.” It’s an ancient derogatory term used to describe women. To me, it seemed like the author was trying to reverse the stereotypical notions of gender roles. Ernt is described as extremely handsome, almost beautiful, but beauty is only a thin covering for the violent temper churning underneath. All the women in the story are strong, independent, and level-headed, while many of the men are slaves to their passions.
The same mentality is used in the way the author described the vast beauty, and equally vast danger, of Alaska. Large forests sit at the edge of roaring beaches that can kill you in a thousand different ways. You feel the biting wind, the cold that seeps into your bones that won’t go away no matter how close to the fire you are. The danger that Alaska holds is perfectly encapsulated in another adage from Large Marge: “Up here you can make one mistake. The second one will kill you.” Cora tells her their first mistake was coming to Alaska.
Alaska attracts those looking to be free from the constraints of society. It’s a land full of misfits that have found a way to fit in. Leni notes this after spending time with Matt at a party. While Ernt is complaining about Tom and his wealth, she tells him, “‘I like this place, Dad,’” “realizing suddenly the truth of her words. She already felt more at home in Alaska than she ever had in Seattle.”
Although the descriptions and themes are interesting on their own, the relationship between Leni and her mother is even more gripping. The charming, angst-ridden Leni anchors the story emotionally, so when Ernt becomes angry and abusive, I felt every blow, every bit of confusion and frustration Leni feels at her father’s behavior. There are moments when Leni is angry at Cora for allowing Ernt to keep hitting her, and there’s a scene after Cora is beaten, where she pleads with Leni to not judge her. You realize it’s a plea not only to Leni, but to us as well.
The love between a parent and child, the greatness and terror of it, and how far each will go to defend each other is the central theme of the story. It’s also what will keep you following along with Leni until the book’s final word.