We know the literary drill: Unassuming woman facing insurmountable challenges rises to the occasion in an inspiring journey of courage and pluck. Oh, and with a touch of romance.
In her bestselling 2015 novel “The Nightingale,” Kristin Hannah gave us Isabelle, who joins the French Resistance in World War II to lead downed airmen across treacherous mountains with pluck and courage. It’s a great book about a strong woman — but almost too strong. You rooted for Isabelle, but you couldn’t imagine yourself in her position.
Leni is different.
Leni is the teenage voice of Hannah’s latest novel, “The Great Alone.” In 1974, Leni and her parents move to Homer, Alaska, for a fresh start.
Her mother, the acquiescent Cora, is estranged from her rich parents, who objected to her marrying Ernt, a vibrantly free spirit before returning from Vietnam, where he was a POW. Now he drinks to dim memories. He can’t hold a job. His temper is hair-trigger.
He says Alaska will give him a place “where I can breathe again,” and so the family once again packs up and moves — moves back in time, actually, to a log cabin without electricity or plumbing, where you carry a gun to the outhouse when bears are active, where you smoke fish and eke vegetables from greenhouses and spend every waking minute of the four non-winter months preparing for the eight months of darkness and isolation.
At first, such purpose reinvigorates Ernt as he bonds with the neighbors’ survivalist spirit. Leni makes a friend in school, Matthew, from one of Alaska’s founding families. Cora begins to relax.
Peace can’t last, of course. Ernt resents Matthew’s father for his success and ambition. He mines a more paranoid vein in the survivalists’ perseverance. He drinks more, becomes more jealous. Violent. Leni realizes where the odd bruises she’s seen for years on her mother came from.
The literary drill would have Leni saving her family, by stealth and cunning, courage and pluck. And surely, she does what she can.
But Hannah has created a complex and agonizingly relatable character. Leni is devoted to Cora, but she’s now in love with Matthew and takes chances that endanger her. Their isolation keeps her from standing up to Ernt, yet she won’t abandon her mother.
Hannah has created an atmosphere of brooding paranoia and simmering violence that can set your heart racing. Anticipated plot twists unravel unexpectedly. Leni is, by all marks, the strong woman here. But she’s how many of us would be strong: in fits and starts, undone by errors of judgment and misplaced trust.
There is another character here: the almost human presence of Alaska. The author’s parents were themselves hippie homesteaders of sorts on the Kenai River, and her own experience lends an authentic foundation to this compelling saga of domestic violence, determination and destiny.
Kim Ode is a feature writer for the Star Tribune. On Twitter: @Odewrites.
The Great Alone
By: Kristin Hannah.
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, 440 pages, $28.99.