June Reads: The Great Alone

This month I had lighter readings for graduate school (by the end of the month), and I went on vacation, so I read a ton of books.  I read a total of 20, but only 13 of those were not related to graduate school or my reading time spent with my children. So, it was a great month!

I decided, since I had read so many books this month to break  down my reading into separate posts, one sharing my quickie reviews of my fiction novels read, and the other sharing my reviews of my non-fiction. However, my review of The Great Alone grew a little wordy, so I decided to spotlight it in a post of its own.

great alone The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

I read The Great Alone for the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s June bookclub read.  I had previously thought about reading it, but didn’t find the thought of reading a book set in Alaska as appealing.  I think I had polar exploration stories, etc. in my mind, so this book was a delightful surprise. Leni is an only child, growing up in a home where her father, a former POW struggles. He decides, on an impulse to move his family to a small, and uncivilized portion of Alaska where the father of one of former Army friends has given Ernt land. Ernt packs up his wife, Cora, and their daughter and heads up north.

The land is a character of its own in this book. The land is untamed, uncivilized and dangerous. It reminded me of all the pioneer stories that I have read in my life, only colder and even more potentially deadly. The survival aspect in Alaska and the community that the Allbright’s moved into was a highlight of the story for me. I could have read about just this alone and been happy in my bookish journey.

However, there’s a deeper and darker struggle here. Ernt was a POW in Vietnam, and he struggles terribly with PTSD. He is often loving with his family, but in his darker moods and in the darker, more wintery times of year, he’s even more dangerous than the Alaskan winters.

It does not take long for the reader to see that the life that Ernt, Cora and Leni are building in Alaska is very fragile. They have a loving and helpful community, and yet they remain isolated from that community in their efforts to hide the debts of Ernt’s sickness from the neighbors. Secrets and abuse are isolating, and eventually the spark comes that ignites Ernt into a spiral-down that is quite shocking, and yet at the same time, an expected path.

Of course, Ernt’s illness is not all that this book is about because, at it’s heart, this is Leni’s coming of age story.  She is growing into womanhood, finding friendship and romance, and finding community even in the most isolated of frontier territories. She’s coming of age in the 1970s, and the book has all the cultural elements of the 70s, as well as the detail of life in Alaska. I enjoyed very much my trip into the seventies, because I always think of that decade with warmth as it is the decade my parents were teens in as well. There were historical details and pop culture references that were just perfect.

I rushed through this book, and enjoyed the writing as well as story. It may be the best first 3/4 of a novel that I have read in quite some time.  Unfortunately, the last 100 pages broke the spell that Hannah had cast over me in the majority of the book. There are many traumatic and high drama events coming at the reader quickly. I felt like it strained the credibility of the story. The events were rushed one after another and not deeply explored. They were also a little on the sentimental side. I enjoy sentimental, and light-and-fluffy reads, but when a novel has been so realistic and unflinchingly beautiful for the first 300 pages, it is difficult to accept a maudlin ending. I felt like the author was intentionally playing on my emotions and trying to build to an emotional pitch that wasn’t necessary.  I was already hooked and emotionally drawn in.  Much of the ending was just distraction to me.

I know I’m not describing it well, but I just loved the story so much, and then the ending felt forced and overdramatic in a way that reminded me of a lot of chick-lit that I read, and lowers the overall quality of the book. Even with the flaws in the ending, I liked the book, but it could have been so much better.

Despite this shortcoming, the book was compulsively readable, and definitely makes my top ten books from the first half of the year. (4.5 out of 5)

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