My writer-friend Liza Wiemer gifted me THE GREAT ALONE after spending time last month at our cottage in Wisconsin completing final edits on her next-to-be-published YA novel, THE ASSIGNMENT. She found the solitude of Washington Island perfect for hours of intense work, and bought Kristin Hannah’s novel for me in hard cover from the island’s wonderful independent bookstore, Fair Isle Books.
I had not read Hannah before, and at first THE GREAT ALONE felt like a young-adult novel (not necessarily a bad thing) despite the book’s hefty size. That, and the story’s setting in the wilderness of Alaska made me slow to engage, though, eventually, I did. The author describes a family’s life on a remote homestead near Homer in the mid-1970s vividly, but as a lover of cloth napkins my reading-face often expressed revulsion, I’m sure. The near-constant darkness half the year, trips through the snow to the outhouse, catching and skinning fish to dry for the winter (which was described more than enough times), the scarcity of just about everything, depressed me. Throughout my reading, I was glad of my lifetime on the grid rather than off it.
Another turnoff was the 13-year-old protagonist’s crazy, abusive, survivalist dad. Yes, he was intrinsic to the story, but having recently read Tara Westover’s EDUCATED, spending time with another power-wielding patriarchal nut-job was at times almost too much. Ernt’s service in Viet Nam is blamed for his emotional problems, but we never find out whether he enlisted or was drafted (important, in my opinion) or precisely what happened to him there.
Hannah’s writing is intensely readable, though sometimes descriptions of hardships seemed repetitive. Enough happened in the story to ramp up the tension and send me racing through the final third to find how it all turns out in the end. By the time I reached the final page, young Lena, her mother Cora, and the cast of eccentric Alaskan characters were real enough to me, and, to my relief, the good people prevailed in this saga of life on the last American frontier.