“The Great Alone” is Kristen Hannah’s newest novel set in the 1970s in Alaska.
Ernt Allbright is a Vietnam POW who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Because it is 1974, PTSD hadn’t been diagnosed nor recognized.
His family just understands that he is “messed up” from the war. Ernt has decided to pack up the family and move to Alaska after a fallen soldier buddy willed his little slice of desolate heaven to Ernt.
Wife Cora and daughter Leni, 13, are apprehensive about the move, naturally, because Ernt suffers so terribly. The thought of Alaska sounds so appealing to Ernt, while both Cora and Leni believe his anxieties and depression will only amplify, especially when winter sets in and they are surrounded by snow and constant darkness. Despite her apprehension, Cora borrows a bit of cash from her parents and they head off in their well-used VW van.
The family is always struggling financially as Ernt is unable to hold a job, so with the little cash they borrowed, the first place they visit before heading to the gifted cabin is an outpost to stock up on living supplies.
Large Marge, as she is called, is a former prosecutor from a big city. Marge runs the outpost and with her great intuition she figures these three out straight away. She helps them get set up with the immediate essentials and doesn’t hold back with her warnings of all of the dangers lurking in remote Alaska. Large Marge, and then later the other folks they meet, spend a lot of time warning of bears, and the merits of preparing for winter, even though it was early summer. They have all stressed the fact that living in Alaska during the winter took a special skill set that not everyone is equipped with.
After acquiring the supplies to get them started, the Allbrights head to the cabin which is more primitive than they had imagined. No running water or electricity. Cora and Leni are anxious and weary at the prospect of their new living situation, while Ernt seemed energized by the challenges they face.
Surprisingly, Ernt manages to keep his mood swings and general mental health under control for a while, but it’s just a matter of time before he begins over-drinking, and his mood swings grow out of control. For years, Cora had been the target of Ernt’s violent outburst. Cora always accepted his apologies and made excuses for her bruises. When Leni becomes the target of Ernt’s physical violence, all things change.
If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have read this book before the holidays because it was an emotional read filled with heartbreak and frustration.
However, I will say that the author did an amazing job at providing me a perfect visual of Alaska and the hardy folk that call Alaska home. I have a renewed respect for the land and its inhabitants. The desolation and winter darkness, along with imminent danger were palpable. The Great Alone can be found in any of our La Crosse County library catalogs at Onalaska, Holmen, Bangor, Campbell and West Salem, which are all a part of the Winding Rivers Library System. The book comes in regular, large print and audio book on CD.
My other favorite reads lately have been “The Storyteller” by Jodi Picoult; “The Girl Who Came Home” by Hazel Gaynor; “Plainsong” and “Eventide,” both by Ken Haruf; “The Guest Room” by Chris Bohjalian; and “One Thousand White Women” by Jim Fergus.
Please check out our website at www.lacrossecountylibrary.org for catalog resources or for upcoming programming schedules. Please visit and Like us on Facebook as well.Suzie Weibel is circulation clerk at the West Salem library.