Postal Reading group
March 2020
Notes on the book The Great alone by Kristin Hannah

The Great alone is the first book I have read by Kristin Hannah, and as far as I know it is representative enough of the author’s work to make a good introduction. She is clearly a good writer and her books are generally well received.

The basic storyline is that Leni, aged 13, is coming of age in the turbulent early 1970s, against a backdrop of her parents’ passionate, but ultimately violent and destructive relationship. Her father takes the family north to Alaska where he has been left some land. Leni and her mother similarly hope that it will enable Ernt to escape a cycle of violence. Predictably enough, this hope is not to be realised, and the darkness of the Alaskan winter makes the situation worse. Meanwhile, Leni meets Matthew and hopes for a better life with him.

At first, this would seem like a fairly typical coming of age story: a teenager without many friends with parents in an unhappy relationship. However, it develops into much more than that. The author’s writing does a good job of conveying both the majestic scenery of Alaska (which captivates Leni), and also the danger: “You can make one mistake in Alaska, the second will kill you”. As the book shows, its probably a good destination for a holiday, but a tough environment in which to make a living, especially for the early ‘pioneers’. Although I might have some sympathy with the idea of going ‘off grid’, the reality is much more difficult to achieve and it requires a lot of land, a low population density and a more moderate climate. Similarly, there is a certain tension between the modern day idea of going off grid, possibly as an environmental decision, and the Alaskan pioneers in this book with their collections of firearms and Ernt’s desire to be free of social norms.

Equally, although Ernt is clearly a nutter and seems to form an alliance with Mad Earl, he does, perhaps, have a point when he questions some of Tom Walker’s development schemes. Very few people would object if it puts more money in their pocket, but it takes away the wilderness which first attracted some of the settlers. Similarly, although tourism can be an important source of income for the local communities, it is not without costs. This remains an important issue for remote communities anywhere.

Initially, I find Ernt to be a difficult character to understand, but around half way through the book, when he starts planning his very own wall, I realise that he is really motivated by fear. Although he is a truly horrible character, perhaps he really does believe that he is protecting his family. Of course, as Leni realises, the real danger is Ernt himself. Although this is more of a concern for Leni, the problem with walls is that they keep people in as well as keeping others out. There is an important lesson here as politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are putting their faith in hard borders.

After this, events in the book seem to develop with a remarkable rapidity, especially after the well paced first half. This chaotic conclusion spoils what would otherwise have been a fine book. The sheer quantity of misfortune which the author heaps on her characters, not to mention the emotions experienced by her readers, means that this is not a book which I enjoyed, despite the good start. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, the author manages another cruel twist; hasn’t Leni suffered enough?

Similarly, a lot of the characters seem to be rather stereotypical: Ernt and his beaten wife, not to mention Mad Earl. For example, I wonder how realistic Ernt’s behaviour is for war veterans and former POWs. Is this sufficient to explain his behaviour or is it just an excuse? Equally, I find Cora’s behaviour a little surprising. While victims of domestic abuse will put up with a lot, a mother’s urge to protect her child is usually stronger. Under the circumstances I would have expected her to make a bid to escape, for Leni’s sake if not her own.

In conclusion, this book starts well, and I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Alaska which really add to the story. Similarly, the plot development is good in the first half, and covers some issues which are still relevant today. Sadly, the rather chaotic ending spoils the book, and the emotions experienced by the characters and readers alike mean that this is not a book which I altogether enjoyed. It is, however, a good choice for a reading group and will surely stimulate discussion.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler