Kristin Hannah’s new novel makes Alaska sound equally gorgeous and treacherous — a glistening realm that lures folks into the wild and then kills them there. It’s the essential setting of “The Great Alone,” an epic story about a teenage girl trapped in her parents’ toxic marriage.
Hannah, the author of more than 20 novels, including “The Nightingale” (2015), which sold 4 million copies, has a sharp eye for drama. This time around, she draws directly on her own family’s knowledge of the challenges and rewards of living on the last frontier. In the 1980s, her parents co-founded what is now the Great Alaska Adventure Lodge, which is still operating out of Sterling, Alaska.
You may remember “The Great Alone” as a 2015 documentary about Iditarod champion Lance Mackey , but Hannah’s title reaches back to a thumpty-thump poem published in 1907 by Robert Service called “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” which includes this couplet:
Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear?
Hannah’s novel ventures into that same awful clarity hemmed in by mountains of ice. The story opens in 1974 when an army vet named Ernt Allbright inherits an Alaskan cabin and 40 acres from a buddy he served with in Vietnam. The timing couldn’t be better. Ernt can’t keep a job — or stop drinking — and the country feels to him like it’s collapsing from coast to coast with scandals in Washington, D.C., and serial killers in Washington state. “Think of it,” Ernt tells Cora, his long-suffering wife. “A house that’s ours. That we own. In a place where we can be self-sufficient, grow our vegetables, hunt our meat, and be free.” For Cora, whose idea of necessary survival skills is “putting on false eyelashes and walking in heels,” Alaska doesn’t have much to offer, but she’s wound her will around Ernt’s erratic desires for so long that the idea of refusing him is impossible.
Fortunately, once they get to Alaska, everything works out just fine.
Actually, nothing works out. The cabin that Ernt inherited turns out to be an abandoned shack “studded with dozens of bleached-white animal skulls.” It has no water or electricity. Ernt and Cora know nothing about growing their own vegetables or hunting their own meat. And, as Ned Stark would say, “Winter is coming.” Hannah notes that the dangerously naive Allbrights have chosen to live on “a piece of land that couldn’t be accessed by water at low tide, on a peninsula with only a handful of people and hundreds of wild animals, in a climate harsh enough to kill you. There was no police station, no telephone service, no one to hear you scream.”
And — who knew? — it turns out that living on a frozen hellscape where the night can be 18 hours long is not the best place for a violent alcoholic suffering from untreated depression and PTSD. It’s not so hot for his wife, either, but she’s drunk on the misconception that every jealous beating is a mark of her husband’s devotion.
We experience this harrowing tale from the point of view of their teenage daughter, Leni. She’s a book-loving girl, toughened by years of frequent moving, and a close student of her father’s capricious moods. But nothing could prepare her for the way isolation and deprivation aggravate his condition. Ernt can’t see Russia from here, but he does imagine a host of other evil forces threatening him and his family, which drives him to more brutal expressions of paranoia. At one point, he even starts building a giant wall on the border of his property like some racist loon.
While Ernt and Cora play out the captivating disaster of their union, Leni remains an irresistibly sympathetic heroine who will resonate with a wide range of readers. (And moviegoers, too. TriStar Pictures just purchased the film rights.) She quickly adapts to the demands of frontier life even as she grows more aware of “the twisted love that bound her parents together.”
Hannah also creates a rich, tightknit community of characters around the Allbrights. They’re rugged individualists who nonetheless genuinely look out for each other. The most delightful is Large Marge, a former D.C. lawyer, ferocious enough to take on a grizzly but kind enough to keep an eye on a teenage girl finding her way in the wild.
The romantic heart of the novel is Matthew, a boy Leni meets in their one-room schoolhouse. When we first see him, he’s as cute and goofy as an Alaskan husky puppy, but as the years pass he grows into a certified hero: just, merciful, honorable and brave and, of course, “tall, long blond hair, incredibly good-looking.” Darned if he isn’t the son of the town’s wealthiest man, whom Ernt despises with an unhinged rage. That star-crossed plot casts poor Leni and Matthew as the lovers in a snowbound version of “Romeo and Juliet.”
Apparently, Leni and Matthew have sex somewhere in these pages, but it’s hard to imagine them generating enough friction to melt an ice cube together. Whereas Hannah describes violent scenes in terms of splashing gore and protruding bone fractures, the erotic moments take place behind a scrim of metaphorical verbiage:
“She hadn’t known until now how love could erupt into existence like the big bang theory and change everything in you and everything in the world. She believed in Matthew suddenly, in the possibility of him, of them. The way she believed in gravity or that the earth was round. It was crazy. Crazy.”
Which is bad. Bad.
The weaknesses of “The Great Alone” are usually camouflaged by its dramatic and often emotional plot. It all skates along quickly, but slow down and you’re liable to crack through the thin patches of Hannah’s style. No Alaskan trail is marked as clearly as the path of this story, which highlights every potential danger. When something bad is going to happen, “Leni had a terrible, building feeling that something bad was going to happen.” We’re subjected to flashing-red cliffhangers to let us know that “this thing could blow up.” And the dialogue sometimes sounds bumper-sticker natural: “Alaska brings out the best and the worst in a man.”
But who cares? By the end, I was surrounded by snow drifts of tissues damp with my tears, which may be as close as I’ll ever get to the last frontier.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com. On Feb. 14 at 7 p.m., Kristin Hannah will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-364-1919. politics-prose.com.
By Kristin Hannah
St. Martin’s. 440 pp. $28.99