I’m REALLY glad I read this in early 2019 so that I don’t have to say Beartown and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry were no longer my favorite books of the year. They can stand proudly in 2018. BUT this book was AMAZING. Standing at my “favorite book of the year” for 2019 (unless somehow there’s something even better ahead) is Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone.
I did not love The Nightingale, but this story’s protag Leni had me from page 1. This girl is the daughter of a very PTSD-burdened Vietnam vet and a former-rich-girl hippie (who’s a little too attractive for her husband’s preference). There are so many memorable moments in the complex relationship between Ernt and Cora, but the most telling was a conversation Leni overhears where her parents confess they are each other’s “heroin”—and how as the girl ages, her perception of what it means to love vs. need another person means. Her own experience with young love is captivating because her fear and confusion change the way she perceives other people’s affection.
Leni’s story is both tragic and empowering. The setting of the most-remote-of-the-remote outskirts of civilization in Alaska is stunningly beautiful and also terrifying. I learned so much about that place alongside the main character… you really feel the constant pressure of living in an environment where everything wants to kill you. And in Leni’s case, it isn’t just the weather or the wild animals.
A lot of really great minor characters bring this story to a high level of reality. This is a weird description, but it felt like if this book was a movie, all the minor characters would be played by huge A-list stars. Even the people who only showed up once or twice were hugely impacting and memorably written. Each of them was a big plus to making the world of the book so immersive.
The father’s descent left my feeling hugely conflicted as the reader. I wanted so badly for Leni’s family to heal but feared (no, knew) they never would. The writing gives you such a good picture of the victims of domestic violence but also the victims of PTSD. It was heart-wrenchingly beautiful to read. Not that the author ever excuses the terrible things that are done, but it felt like the opposite picture from Jack’s story on the great TV show This Is Us. Like one little nudge in the wrong direction at a vulnerable time… you’re left with an awful sense of “what if.”
While giving the warning that there are a lot of potential triggers for readers (characters experience domestic violence, loss, anarchy propaganda from a colony of crazies)—I highly recommend this story. What an experience to read and enjoy. This is far more than a ‘coming of age’ story or even a ‘man vs wild’ story of defeating the untameable Alaska wilderness. It’s not really a “how I overcame my crappy start in life” bit, either. It is all that, but much more, and with a sweet love story to boot.