The Great Alone a Page-Turning Thrill

The Great Alone  (2018)
By Kristin Hannah
St. Martin’s Press, 440 pages

Did you ever contemplate dropping out of the rat race? Maybe move somewhere remote where politics, creed, and race don’t matter? A place where you survive by your wits and the occasional help of the handful of neighbors who live nearby, but not too close? And wouldn’t be nice if there were eagles and orcas, plus all the moose, halibut, and salmon you can cram into your larder? Be careful what you wish for!

Kristin Hanna’s latest novel, The Great Alone, is set in exactly such a place; her fictional town of Kaneq, Alaska, is based on the Kenai Peninsula town of Seldovia, population 30. We first meet her fictional pivots, the Albright family, in Seattle, where daughter Leonora ("Leni”) is 13. The year is 1974; Leni’s mother, Cora, is an attractive chain-smoking semi-hippie with few skills other than packing up the household on a regular basis to move on. That's not hard; the Albrights are poor as church mice because paterfamilias Ernt can’t keep a job. He’s both a Vietnam vet and a former POW suffering from PTSD at a time in which the condition is barely discussed, let alone understood. Ernt is a powder keg with a short fuse, one prone to anger and bad choices that make life tough on everyone.

Cora and Leni hold out hope that a windfall will help Ernt; he inherits a piece of land in Alaska when a Vietnam War buddy dies. If you’re really not fit for society, Kaneq is the place to be. If you need an "urban" experience, you’d have to take a boat across Kachemak Bay to Homer (population 3,900) because it would nearly impossible to drive there. The Albrights pack their Salvation Army castoff possessions into a beat-up VW van and commence to homesteading. That’s the right word; neighbors will give you a leg up to get you started, but they’ll also remind you that there are a thousand ways to die in Alaska, among them carnivorous bears, falling into frigid waters, disappearing under winter ice, exposure, and injuring yourself in a place where no help is available. And there’s always danger from going whacko during the long winter when perpetual darkness can last more than two months. If you need more details, read the Robert Service (1874-1958) poem “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” from whence Hannah borrowed his description of Alaska: the Great Alone.

Hannah’s Alaska is alone, but not quite. There aren’t a lot of people in Kaneq, but it’s a colorful and diverse lot. With the exception of Tom Walker and his clan, whose Alaska roots are generations deep, most of them are refugees from civilization just like Ernt. The town matriarch is Large Marge, a plus-sized African American woman who chucked her life as a lawyer in Chicago to run what can charitably called the general store. The other extreme is Mad Earl, a survivalist whose conspiracy theories would make a schizophrenic blush. His Kaneq is where the resistance will begin when society collapses, which he and devotee Ernt reference with the shorthand WTSHTF (When The Shit Hits The Fan). And it looks to them like Tom Walker’s plans to fix up the town and attract more summer tourists is exactly the thing that will start the blades to rotate.

Hannah’s novel is astonishing in its sprawl. She makes us feel both Alaska’s lure and its terrors. Along the way she probes topics such as madness, paranoia, class envy, blinding jealousy, forbidden love, enabling behavior, domestic violence, reinvention, and kindness. Her tale is one of life stripped to its basics. It unfolds in two and a half acts: 1974, 1978, and a 1986 addendum. Hannah isn’t always a great stylist and, frankly, her resolution seems schmaltzy and contrived. She is, however, a fantastic storyteller.

This book has already been optioned for a film, but you should read it now, as I’m pretty certain Hollywood will strip some of the nuances and quiet terrors that emerge in the book. This is a 440-page novel, but I zipped through it in just three sittings. Call it a page-turner, but it’s certainly not one cut from ordinary cloth.

Rob Weir


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