Kristin Hannah’s new novel, about a troubled family going “off the grid” in Alaska, is a worthy successor to “The Nightingale.” She will makes appearances Feb. 24 at Costco in Redmond and Feb. 27 at The Loft in Poulsbo.
“The Great Alone”
by Kristin Hannah
St. Martin’s Press, 440 pp., $28.99
The real star of Kristin Hannah’s new novel, “The Great Alone,” is Alaska: a remote corner of the vast wilderness where the troubled Allbright family moves to make a new start. It’s the post-Vietnam 1970s, and the damaged, unstable ex-POW Ernt decides to head north with his wife, Cora, and their 13-year-old daughter Leni to live “off the grid” in a wilderness cabin that Ernt inherited. There, in the comparative isolation at the end of an unpaved road, with distant neighbors named “Mad Earl” and “Crazy Pete,” the Allbrights are hoping to find peace and contentment in their tiny cabin with no electricity or running water.
But of course the family brings its problems along to Alaska: as Leni put it, “… a dad who scared you sometimes and a mother who loved him too much and made him prove how much he loved her in dangerous ways. Like flirting.” Leni, smart and perceptive and good, worries about her family in ways no teenager should have to. Completely unprepared for the exigencies of a dark winter nine months long, a dwindling food supply, a deep-freeze climate and an overabundance of dangerous animal predators, the three Allbrights survive the first winter by the skin of their (untreated) teeth. The 18-hour nights and short days worsen Ernt’s PTSD, though the family gets help from the ultra-capable neighbor Large Marge, and Leni makes friends with her school classmate Matthew.
Hannah fills the pages with the terror, awe, beauty and almost unimaginable remoteness of the magnificent landscape, where a failure to stock enough firewood can mean freezing to death, and a single slippery misstep on a trail can end a life. With an eye to every detail of life and survival, she richly describes nature’s grandeur, which is matched by its ubiquitous dangers: Supplies dwindle to a couple of slices of Spam, and wolves destroy the family’s animals.
The author of “The Great Alone” will sign books at 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 24, at Costco, 7725 188th Ave. N.E., Redmond; she also will appear in conversation with Megan Chance at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 27, at The Loft, 18779 Front St. N.E., Poulsbo (kristinhannah.com/tour-dates).
The suspense gradually is ratcheted up through pages of Ernt’s violent PTSD-related outbursts and dangerous confrontations, to the point where it’s almost a relief when the inevitable explosion occurs. It’s the last one-fourth of the book that ties everything up in renunciation, reinterpretation and a return to the call of the north — a slightly more civilized but still powerfully beautiful Alaska, where Leni and Matthew find their future as well as their past.
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The book’s title is from a line in a Robert Service poem, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” The poem, with such lines as “icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear,” is worth rereading as a companion piece to Hannah’s novel.
To follow up on the runaway international success of Hannah’s “The Nightingale” must have been a daunting challenge, and while “The Great Alone” may not eclipse that mega-seller, it’s a worthy successor. Hannah’s family owns and operates an adventure lodge in Alaska, and her deep and detailed knowledge of America’s spectacular “last frontier” infuses every chapter of this book.