I came into The Great Alone expecting an adventure story. While there was indeed adventure in these pages, I found so much more than that. Hannah gives her readers a peak into not only Alaska, but into love in all its forms and scope and limitless variety. We see the love of a child for their parent and a parent for their child, and how far each would go to protect the other. We see romantic love so twisted that it becomes deadly to at least one party, and romantic love so strong and pure that it can conquer the worst adversities. We see the love that can grow within a community, and how family can form among completely unrelated people. And lacing all of these loves together, we see the love that nature can foster within a human heart, even when said nature is just as brutal and dangerous as it is stunningly beautiful.
“I think you stand by the people you love.”
The Great Alone is not at all a romance novel, though there is romance within its pages. It is a study of all the various types of love listed above. It is a display of the tenacity of the human spirit, and how much one can overcome, especially for the sake of another. It’s a coming of age story unlike any I’ve read before. And above all, it is a love letter to Alaska, the Great Alone. Rarely have I read a book with such a strong sense of place. I was completely captivated by its deadly beauty and, while I have no desire to move there myself, I can understand why those that do reside there become so fiercely loyal to and defined by the land that is their home.
“Alaska isn’t about who you were when you headed this way. It’s about who you become.”
The potential fragility of familial love isn’t something I think of often. I’ve been blessed with an incredibly stable and selfless family, and we love each other fiercely. But that love doesn’t have a lot to overcome to remain strong. And I’m incredibly thankful for that. Leni Allbright’s parents, Ernt and Cora, love each other. But it’s a poisonous, all consuming, jealous love that spins further and further out of control as Leni grows up. Being a prisoner of war in the Vietnam War changed Leni’s dad, and not for the better. Cora loves Ernt anyway, and so does Leni, but the woman and the girl live on edge, afraid that the least little thing they do wrong might set him off. When a fellow soldier dies and leaves Ernt his homestead in Alaska, the Allbrights pack up their lives and head north. They have no idea what they’re in for. But here, for the very first time, Leni feels like she’s found a home. Alaskan life might be incredibly hard, but it’s worth every drop of sweat.
“You don’t stop loving a person when they’re hurt. You get stronger so they can lean on you.”
If I had to define The Great Alone in one word, that word would be harrowing. Reading this book was emotionally exhausting and incredibly tense, but worth it. I’m not a big crier, especially over words on a page. But I cried my way through the last third of this particular book. My Novel Notions co-bloggers insisted that I share the fact that I finished reading this while sobbing into my pasta. I seasoned my lunch with the salt of my tears. I wish I was kidding. It broke me, y’all. I was so exhausted by the time it was over that I had to go sleep it off. And I’m not a napper. I can’t remember the last time I had such a visceral response to a book. The mother-daughter relationship at the heart of this book is the source of most of my wildly fluctuating emotions. The quote below actually made me put the book down and walk to my parents’ house, because I was bawling my eyes out and I desperately needed to hug my own mama.
You are my heart, baby girl. You are everything I did right. And I want you to know I would do it all again, every wonderful terrible second of it. I would do years and years of it again for one minute with you.”
I have a tendency to bounce between formats when reading a book. I have a physical copy that I would read, and then I would listen while walking my dog or folding laundry. By the time I was past the halfway point of The Great Alone, I had completely abandoned the physical copy. Julia Whelan narrated the audiobook and I think she did an absolutely brilliant job. It was a pitch perfect performance that added a lot to an already incredible book.
“Books are the mile markers of my life. Some people have family photos or home movies to record their past. I’ve got books. Characters. For as long as I can remember, books have been my safe place.”
The Great Alone is a phenomenal story of love and resilience and stark, deadly beauty. There is some pretty hard content in this book, especially regarding violence, but I feel that the darkness made the brightness within it even more brilliant. This is one of my favorite books I’ve read this year, and I will definitely be reading more of Hannah’s work in the not-too-distant future. I’ve been really missing out. The only novel of hers I had read before this was The Nightingale, which I loved, so I plan not to wait so long between her books from here on out. I’m already looking forward to rereading The Great Alone, in all of its formats, and my physical copy now has a place on the shelf that houses my lifetime favorites. I can’t praise it highly enough.
You can order this book from: Bookshop.org (Support independent bookstores!) | Amazon UK | Amazon US | Audible | Libro.fm (Another way to support independent bookstores!) | Book Depository (Free shipping)