The Great Alone

By Kristin Hannah, A family drama and survival story set in Alaska

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah is a story set in the Alaskan wilderness. As referenced in the book, the title comes from a line from a poem by Robert Service (“The Shooting of Dan McGrew”) where he refers to the remote Alaskan lands as the “Great Alone”.

I knew I’d read it sooner or later, since I’d heard so much about it, but it got pushed off for a while when I was reading The Snow Child (also about a family trying to make a life in Alaska). I’m always a little hesitant to jump into books with similar premises or similar settings.

Of course, aside from the general locale, I quickly discovered that these are two very different books — in tone, subject matter, time period and etcetera.

Plot Summary

For the Detailed Plot Summary, click here or scroll all the way down.

In The Great Alone, the Allbrights are a family who move to a small town in Alaska for a new start. Ernst, the father, is a Vietnam veteran and former POW who has struggled emotionally since the war. Cora, his wife, loves him and tries to help him. Leni is their young daughter.

Leni is hopeful when they first arrive in the small outpost of Kaneq. But as the days shorten and the sky darkens when winter appraches, Ernst’s temper and volatile impulses re-emerge. As Leni grows up, she and her mother must manage Ernst and the demons which haunt him.

Book Review

The Great Alone is a survival story, both about surviving in the unforgiving Alaskan wilderness and about growing up with an abusive and volatile father. Ernst is a deeply flawed man. He prefers the company of survivalist and doomsdayer Mad Earl to that of the cheerier and more optimistic people in town. Cora remembers the man he once was and clings to that memory.

Hannah paints a vivid and memorable image of a family and a community making a life and surviving out in the wilderness. The small community she depicts is sparse, but vibrant, providing warmth and softening the edges of the harsh Alaskan landscape.

To be honest, I enjoyed the parts about surviving in Alaska, Ernst’s transformation and integrating with the community a lot more than and the parts about abuse. This is semi-unfortunate, since the novel becomes increasingly about Ernst’s violent temper as the novel progresses.

As such, I found the initial setup of The Great Alone, which spans approximately the first half of the book, really well done. It’s evenly paced and delivers a steady stream of emotional ups and downs and the Allbrights navigate this new territory and their new lives.

As the novel hits the half-way mark though, the story darkens, the book gets a lot more dramatic and starts to hit a repetitive note. I suppose this is probably a reflection of the experience of dealing with abusive family members and their victims, though knowing that didn’t keep me from feeling a little frustrated as the novel begins to drag on. That said, this is fairly minor and not a reason to skip this book, assuming you’re comfortable with the topic as a whole.

As the book concludes, a lot happens and Hannah rushes through the ending a bit, though I tend to be biased towards books that move a little too fast versus those that move a little too slow. Even with the speedy ending, it still manages overall to be a satisfying emotional journey up until the end.

Book Review: Some Criticisms

Apart from the middle that drags a little, my main caveat about this book is that it gets a little soap opera-y in a few parts. There’s a lot of Big Events that happen in the book that enhance the drama, but also start to feel like a crutch.

I would have preferred a little less melodrama and a little more introspection in this type of story, but it does make for an eventful plot.

The Great Alone Movie Adaptation

The Great Alone film adaptation is in development currently (as of May 2019). Tristar Pictures purchased the film rights in June of 2018. It sounds like the project is still in its early stages, but I’ll update as news comes out.

Read it or Skip it?

The Great Alone is well-written, often heart-breaking and touching and sometimes a little frustrating emotional journey. The story drags on just a tad in the middle and gets a little over-dramatic in parts in terms of Big Events happening, but overall there’s a lot to like about it.

I thought Hannah did a good job with the topic, though ultimately it is largely about abuse, which I think is inherently a dark and (to put it lightly) “unpleasant” topic. It’s just something to be aware of going into the book that the story spends a substantial amount of time on that issue.

I think people who like plot-heavy books about heavy topics will like The Great Alone. It’s an accessible and well-written, though not particularly literary. There’s also a touch of melodrama in there and especially towards the end, which may be a plus or minus for you, depending on your reading preferences.

I wasn’t as captivated by it as some other readers seem to be, but I did think it was an interesting read as far as family dramas go. My favorite part of it was still the first hundred or so pages when the family is first getting settled into their new home in the Great Alone.

Did you read The Great Alone? What did you think? If not, is it something you’d consider reading?


Detailed Plot Summary (Spoilers)

1974

Chapters 1 - 3

Leni (Lenora Allbright) is the new girl at her junior high school. Cora and Ernt are her parents. Ernt is a Vietnam War vet and former POW, who was previously a mechanic. They move frequently. Ernt receives a letter informing him that a buddy of his (Bo Harlan) who died in the war has left him a house in Alaska. Ernt wants to go. He has struggled emotionally and has lived and unstable life since the war.

In preparation, Cora goes to the bank, but finds out the Ernt has cleared out her bank account. Instead, she goes to visit her parents (who she has a strained relationship with) to ask them for money.

They soon head out and get to their new "town" of Kaneq, of less than 30 people. Large Marge (Marge Birdsall) runs the general store and warns them that things will be tough out here, but that they all help each other out. The cabin they've inherited is tiny, with no electricity or running water or even a bathroom (there's an outhouse).

Chapters 4 - 6

Marge shows up, bringing along Natalie Watkins and Geneva Walker, to help make the place live-able. The need a greenhouse and a food storage area (cache) at least. They get to work, and Marge tells them they need to learn how to shoot as well.

They go to see Earl "Mad Earl" Harlan (Bo's father) and meet Bo's family. Earl is friendly, but also kind of belligerent and paranoid. Thelma, Bo's sister, offers to teach Cora to farm.

Leni goes to school on Monday. It's a tiny one-room schoolhouse with only six students. Tica Rhodes, a native, is the teacher. Leni is seated next to Matthew Walker, who is her age (13), and they get along well.

The family goes to a community barbecue that night at the Walker's House (Tom and Geneva are Matthew's parents) which is huge. Ernt has been happy in Alaska up until now, but he and Earl get drunk at the party and exchange bitter comments about the Walker's fancy house ("born rich" etc.). Matthew overhears them, but tells Leni that it's okay.

Chapters 7 - 8

Matthew tells Leni about his parents being split up, and that his older sister Alyeska (Aly) is away at college. Soon, school lets out for the summer and the kids work instead. They hang out when they can. In September, school starts back up again.

Leni and Cora are worried that Earl is a bad influence on Ernt (encouraging him to drink, being belligerent, etc.). Earl and Ernt continue buddying up, drinking and shooting and musing about paranoid end-of-the-world-type talk (World War Three, martial law, nuclear war, etc.). They start getting preoccupied with making sure their families have fighting (gun/knife) skills.

Cora tells Leni about her getting pregnant at 16 and running off with Ernt as an act of rebellion against her strict parents. Leni and Cora also worry that Ernst's mood will worsen in the winter ("winter dark"). Everyone has told them how hard winter is. ("'The Great Alone,' Leni said. That was what Robert Service called Alaska.") Soon, the days shorten and it gets darker. Ernst is worried about food, and he's getting moody and tempermental. He starts having nightmares again.

They go hunting, and Leni kills her first animal -- a hare. Ernst insists that she eat the heart. He later yanks her out of bed in the middle of the night to tell her she needs to learn to assemble a rifle quickly.

They hear on the radio that some people are lost (Geneva and Matthew) and go to join the search party. Finally, they find Matthew, but he tells them his mom has fallen through the ice. She's gone.

Chapters 9 - 11

They have a funeral for Geneva. Leni meets Aly, Matthew's sister. Cora gives Tom Walker her condolences and Ernst gets jealous. They argue after the funeral, and Ernst hits Cora. Leni realizes that it has happened before but this is the first time she's seen it.

At school, Matthew is withdrawn. There is a school field trip where he shoves Leni away she tries to help him. Afterwards, Matthew tells her he is going to stay with his aunt, so he can see a shrink and be with his sister and get the help he needs. He leaves.

At home, food supplies are running low. One night Ernst goes out to drink (at the Kicking Moose), they hear wolves. Cora tries to scare them off with a gun, but when they check the next morning, they see that their animal pens (goats and chickens) have all been destroyed. Cora tells Marge and Tom what happened, and Tom confronts Ernst at the bar. Tom tells Ernst off for leaving them alone. When they get back to their cabin, Ernst is still drunk and flies into a rage and beats up Cora.

Leni tells her mother that they are leaving. They grab some stuff and get into their car (VW bus). As they are driving, a moose walks into the road and causes them to get into an accident. Cora's arm is broken, and the car is wrecked. With difficulty, they get out and go to the closest residence, the Walker House. Tom and Marge help to rescue Cora and take her to the hospital.

Cora is okay, but decides then not to try to leave Ernst again. Cora is scared and she still loves him, despite everything. Ernst beats her up again when they get back. Tom and Marge show up to intervene. Marge, a former prosecutor, had a sister who was killed by her abusive husband. She tells Ernst that his only option is to go away and work somewhere else (at the pipeline) for the winter, and she says she'll move in and take care of Cora and Leni. She hopes he'll come back a changed man. Ernst agrees to the plan.

1978

Chapters 12 - 13

Leni is now 17. She is a good hunter now. Her father has abided by the rules, and each winter after Thanksgiving he leaves to work on the pipeline. Times has changed and Kaneq is now a larger city where tourists occasionally come by.

Tom calls a town meeting to let people know he's going to fix up the bar and hotel. Ernst is unhappy. He thinks Tom is showing off his money and that the changes will change their way of life. Ernst calls his own meeting at Harlan's house to complain about it.

That night, Ernst goes out and wrecks the saloon, taking an ax to all the windows and walls. The next morning the town sees it, and Tom warns Ernst to leave him alone, but lets it go. Leni worries that the conflict is separating a town that has always been about being together.

Tom goes by Harlan's place to offer people jobs paying above average to help renovate the saloon. Ernst sees people accept his offer and storms off in a huff.

Chapters 14 - 16

Matthew is doing well living in Fairbanks with his aunt and sister. He wants to go back to Kaneq though, since he misses Leni. Leni and Matthew have stayed in touch via letters. When he returns to Kaneq, Leni is happy to see him, but scared of what her father will think. She tells Matthew they can't let Ernst know they are friends.

Tom Walker decides to build some lodges for tourists, and when Ernst sees the it, he's pissed. Ernst comes up with a plan to plant explosives around the Harlan's home to "protect" them, but the Harlans reject it after some argument. Ernst is unhappy.

Matthew and Leni's relationship continues to grow. Matthew asks her to apply to college with him. Leni is worried about leaving her mother alone with Ernst. Leni and Matthew kiss. When Ernst finally finds out about them and realizes Cora has known what was going on, he beats up Cora.

Chapters 17 - 20

Leni secretly applies to college. She and Matthew keep seeing each other. One day, Mad Earl has a heart attack and dies. Once that happens, the rest of the Harlans have less reason to put up with Ernst. Ernst, angry over being unwelcome at the Harlans, barricades their cabin and starts building a wall at the bottleneck that leads into their land. Large Marge tells Cora to leave, but she refuses, so she says to reach out if they need help.

Leni is accepted to college. Marge says Tom, Thelma, and etcetera have agreed to pay the costs so she can go. There's a graduation party at the saloon for her and Matthew but Ernst refuses to let her go.

Cora says she'll help Leni sneak away so she can go to college but advises her to stay away from Matthew until then, to avoid setting Ernst off. Leni does this for months, but in August longs to see him. Cora and Ernst are going to city nearby to see a snow machine. Leni invites Matthew over and they sleep together, but fall asleep afterwards. They get away with it, but it's a close call.

Ernst finishes the wall and puts a metal lock on it. Leni and Cora decide they need to leave. When they go into town, Cora sees Matthew and pleads for him to help them. But Ernst puts his hand on his knife, and Cora tells Matthew to stay away. Ernst angrily takes them home and begins beating Cora when Matthew shows up. Leni, Cora and Matthew are able to get away. Cora goes to Large Marge's place, and Leni and Matthew duck into the wilderness to hide.

Chapters 21 - 23

As the're walking, Leni falls. Matthew goes down to help her, but it causes a rock avalanche. Now the are both injured, stuck in a crevice for two nights. Finally, a helicopter shows up to airlift them to a hospital. Leni is okay, but Matthew is in very bad condition. Cora tells Leni that Ernst is in jail. Days later, Matthew is barely conscious, and they don't know if he'll wake up or if he's paralyzed or brain damaged or something else.

Cora declines to press charges so Ernst goes home. Months later, Matthew still isn't better. He's moved into a care facility in anchorage. Leni declines to leave for college, since she is waiting for him. Leni finds out she's pregnant. Leni tells Ernt and he starts to hit her. Cora shoots him.

Chapters 24 - 26

Leni and Cora decide to bury the body, which they do. They tell Marge and ultimately they know they'll need to flee. There's no battered woman defense for murder and eventually people will notice he's missing. They need to make it look like Ernst killed them both, and then they can just disappear.

Leni says goodbye to Matthew. The leave for Seattle, where Cora's parents are. They tell Cora's parents that Leni's pregnant. They remember how Cora ran off when she got pregnant and see this as a second chance to do things right, so they welcome them into their home.

Cora's parents bring home a fake birth certificate and marriage license so that she can get a drivers license and social security card. The police show up at their house to let them know Cora and Leni are presumed dead. The baby is born, named Matthew Junior (MJ). Leni keeps writing to Matthew, but doesn't send the letters.

1986

Chapters 27 - 29

Leni is now 25, about to graduate with a degree in visual arts, to be a photographer. MJ is doing well. They find out Cora has stage 4 lung cancer. Realizing she's dying, Cora tells Leni that she's going to just confess to the murder so that Leni can be free to resume her life in Alaska. Cora passes away.

Leni takes MJ to Alaska. She tells the officer about the murder, who coaxes her to tell the full truth, implying that it'll be okay. After Leni admits to helping to get rid of the body, he arrests her. However, at the trail, Large Marge is there and Tom Walker has helped pull some strings to get the state to drop the charges.

Leni meets Mr. Walker's new wife, Atka. They all go to see Matthew. His face is still disfigured and he needs a wheelchair to get around, but at least he is conscious. His speech is imperfect because he needed to re-learn how to speak and read because of the brain damage.

Leni is finally able to tell him about their son. She says she wants them to raise MJ together. Matthew tells Leni he still loves her.

The book ends with Leni and Matthew finally able to be together. The whole community is out and together on a nice summer's day to have a memorial for Cora. The last few pages are an article Leni writes about what Alaska has meant to her and her family.

See The Great Alone on Amazon.

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