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The Great Alone
By John Ketwig (reviewer)
The Great Alone
by Kristin Hannah
(St. Martin's Press, 2018)
Kristin Hannah is a #1 New York Times best-selling author with more than twenty novels to her credit. I read mostly nonfiction, but I was intrigued by this book which is a fictitious story about a family's struggle with a Vietnam veteran's PTSD. I thought I would give it a try despite the fact that it is primarily "one of those" books written for a female audience, and I immediately became engrossed in a fast-moving story superbly told. This is one of those books you can't put down, and I have become a Kristin Hannah fan.
Ernt Allbright is a former POW, and since coming home from Vietnam, he has lost numerous jobs and moved his family to a variety of locations. The story is told from the perspective of his daughter, Leni, short for Lenora. The wonderful father who went off to Vietnam has come home moody, angry, and distant. It is 1974, and the news is all about Patricia Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army. Times are hard, but Dad comes home with the news that his best friend from the prison in Vietnam had left him forty acres with a cabin that needs fixing… in rural Alaska. "A hardworking man can live off the land up here," the letter says, "away from the crazies and the hippies and the mess in the Lower Forty-eight." Ernt is ecstatic. This is his chance to live far off the grid, away from outsiders. Ernt believes the world is rushing toward a nuclear inferno, and he needs to prepare so his family might survive. He is obsessed, recklessly leery of the few neighbors who go out of their way to welcome the newcomers and offer advice about how they might prepare for the oncoming winter.
Poor Leni and her mother are close, although Momma sends her daughter away when Ernt repeatedly beats her, then apologizes and promises it will never happen again. Leni believes he truly loves them, but his wild and violent outbursts frighten her, and she does not understand why her mother sticks with him. Leni grows to love Alaska, and ultimately she falls in love with Matthew, the son of the richest man in the area. When Matthew's father begins to upgrade the town and invite tourists to visit, Ernt goes berserk and begins to fortify his homestead. He cuts all ties to the community, and beats his wife harder and more often. Leni is horrified, but there seems to be no escape.
All of this is masterfully told, with wonderful descriptions of the terrain, the weather, and the wildlife of rural Alaska, the Great Alone of the title. The story builds, keeping the reader up at night as it rushes toward some inevitable climax. This is not a "girly" book. Many facets of Ernt's PTSD are recognizable, even uncomfortably familiar, and it is humbling to see them portrayed from the perspective of his daughter and wife. They try so hard to create a viable family environment and a comfortable home in this unforgiving place, while the dangers build within the confines of their tiny cabin.
The Great Alone is a story of Alaska, not a story of Vietnam, and not really an especially lifelike description of one family's struggle with PTSD. The author's purpose is not to provide a clinical examination of the devastating condition so familiar to the veterans of modern wars and their families. Perhaps the secret of a good novel is the author's ability to draw scenes and personalities that are bigger than life, but still recognizable. This is a compelling story of living alone, of hardship and resilience, but also of love and the wildness that lives in people as well as nature. It's not a book I would normally buy, but I'm very glad I did. Visit your local library and give it a try. I think you will find it a riveting and entertaining story told by an exceptional writer.
John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW, and the author of ...and a hard rain fell: A G.I.'s True Story of the War in Vietnam.