If you’ve read my blog, you know THE NIGHTINGALE was the best book I read last year because I can’t shut up about it. The writing was beautiful, the story captivating, the characters heart-wrenching. I ignored my children, terrified my husband, neglected my home, and then sobbed for days after I finished. I couldn’t even LOOK at another book for weeks because I could think of nothing but Vianne and Isabelle.
So of course I picked up Kristen Hannah’s newest book THE GREAT ALONE the moment it became available in my Book of the Month club. I cleared my schedule, pawned my children off to my husband, prepared to be swept into her newest masterpiece.
It was more like a lazy river.
The story centers around Leni Allbright, the only child of Ernst Allbright, a Vietnam POW with PTSD, and his wife Cora. The family has been drifting since he returned from war when–surprise–Ernst decides to pack up his family and move to a piece of land in nowhere Alaska, which was conveniently willed to him by a deceased battle buddy. With–even more surprisingly–little to no resistance from his wife or thirteen year-old daughter, they abandon everything they own and head for the Great White North.
For an isolated community full of those seeking to get away from others, the residents of Kaneq miraculously welcome the newcomers with open arms. And–lo and behold–the Allbrights settle right in with Hannah glossing over any sort of real, relatable shock you’d expect those of us from the Lower 48 might have upon arrival.
The premise of the story–if you forgive all the convenience and cliches–is promising. Unfortunately, Hannah’s characters simply fall flat.
Leni falls hard and fast for Matthew, the ONLY boy her age in area (what luck her soul mate just happened to be the only other kid in Kaneq). Despite all of the turmoil in her life, rarely does Leni show the emotions or actions of a typical pre-teen girl. She’s so good all the time. Even when she’s being “bad.” And, by the end of the story, she’s still good. She’s aged, grown, matured–and remained exactly the same. She seems more like a vehicle in which to roll the story forward than an actual person we should be rooting for, cheering for, and connecting with. More than once do we hear Leni mention ways to die in Alaska; I wish I could have seen her actually live.
Her father, Ernst, goes from “weird” to hardcore abusive towards Cora with little to no warning. It’s obvious Hannah intends for Ernst to be the “bad guy,” with the harshness of Alaska exacerbating his already fragile mental state, but his transformation is so abrupt, he becomes a caricature of an abuser rather than someone who is fighting–and losing–against real inner demons. Hannah had a chance to explore some heavy issues here and, instead, she reduces Ernst to a simple villian.
The residents of Kaneq read like something out of a reality show. There was your jolly tough woman, Large Marge, an almost too-good-to-be-true savior who cares about the Allbright women and risks her life for them for reasons I never fully understood. There was also the “us vs. them” richies, the Walkers who, despite being friendly and pleasant and welcoming, became bad guys simply because they had money (money they shared generously, I might add). And, of course, the survivalist nut, Mad Earl, who Hannah used as a catalyst for Ernst’s spiral into self-destruction. He was supposed to be crazy, dangerous, a bad influence, but he instead came across like an FBI plant inside a white supremacist group. His insanity and hatred was forced, phony, and just plain *gulp* bad writing. Hannah took every cliche phrase from every right-wing nutjob meme and forced them into Mad Earl’s mouth. She, again, had the opportunity to explore the nuances and motivations–both good and bad–behind those who leave civilization behind and simply put, failed.
The only realistic thing about THE GREAT ALONE was Alaska itself. Hannah paints a beautiful picture of its vivid landscapes, and her love for the state shines through despite the mediocre story. People who visit–and those who visit only to leave again–say Alaska gets in your blood somehow. And you can tell it has gotten in Hannah’s.
I just wish it had gotten into the characters in THE GREAT ALONE.