The Great Alone: A Gritty Coming of Age Story in the Untamed Alaskan Frontier
Updated: Jan 31
Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone is a brilliant and devastating novel. The story begins in 1974 with 12-year-old Leni getting ready for the first day of school. She is nervous. It’s the fifth school she’s been to, because her father is unstable and can’t hold onto a job. We discover that her father Ernt was a POW in the Vietnam War and suffers from PTSD, and as a result, has difficulties adjusting to civilian life; Leni’s mom, Cora, seems to be able to adjust to anything as long as she is with Ernt. When Ernt discovers that one of his fellow soldiers, Bo Harlan, left him a piece of land in Kaneq, Alaska, he jumps at the chance for a new beginning away from the corrupting influences of modern-day America. Ernt packs Cora and Leni into a VW bus, and off they go. Cora and Leni only hope that the rugged wilderness of Alaska will help Ernt overcome his inner demons.
Things go ok for a little while, but then Ernt’s dark side re-surfaces during the dark and treacherous Alaskan winter. As Leni and Cora strive to survive in the wild, raising livestock and stocking up on food, the biggest danger proves to be Ernt’s uncontrollable temper. Hannah’s characters are believable, complicated, flawed, and alive. You hate Ernt, but you also realize that he was a victim of the war. You become impatient with Cora, because she won’t leave her abusive husband. And Leni is in the worst situation, she is a child stuck between an abuser and an enabler.
This is a novel that will be difficult to put down. Hannah masterfully tells Leni and her family’s tragic story while portraying the magnificence and grandeur of the Alaskan frontier. The Great Alone is engaging, emotionally powerful, and simply unforgettable. It’s a gritty coming of age story that deals with many disturbing issues, chief among them being domestic abuse, but it never felt gratuitous. It felt quite real and believable. Highly recommended! 4.5 out 5 stars.