The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
Have you ever read a book that you just can't stop thinking about for days afterward, to the point that you try to start a new book, and the first book is still so much on your brain that you just can't get into the new one? The Great Alone is one of those books for me. It has gotten a lot of hype, so I was a little wary, but it completely surpassed my expectations. I adored it- I adored the way my brain just didn't want to let go of this story.
Leni was born to teenage parents in Washington state. Leni's maternal grandparents never agreed with her mother running off with her father, feeling that she could have done so much better. They lived a relatively happy life until her father went off to Vietnam. After serving for six years, held as a POW for some of them, Leni's father returns. She hardly remembers him, but he is a changed man, prone to fits of anger, violence, and domestic abuse against Leni's mom.
One day, they receive a letter that informs them that one of Ernt's fellow POWs from Vietnam has left them his off-grid cabin in Alaska in his will. Feeling that perhaps this is the new start that they need, the new start that will help Ernt heal and return to the loving, fun guy he was before the war, they head north. The cabin has been abandoned for years, and is in rough shape, but the community pitches in and help the family make it livable. The days are long and laborious as they try to get a garden in and stock enough food and wood to get them through a long Alaskan winter. Unused to living in such a back to basics situation, there is much to learn and adjust to. At first Ernt seems better, but as winter sets in, with its long, cold, isolated days cooped up in the cabin, it turns out he is not better at all.
At school Leni makes friends with Matthew, the only other student her age. They become very close, but the next year Matthew is sent to live with his aunt in Fairbanks after the sudden death of his mother. Matthew and Leni write letters back and forth, and when Matthew comes back to Homer to live with his dad during his senior year of high school their friendship picks right up, but also blossoms into something more. During the years Matthew was gone, his father developed his land and some of the property he owns in town, striving to improve it and welcome tourists. Ernt has taken a particular dislike to the man and all that he is associated with, especially the development, often acting openly hostile toward him when they meet in town. He forbids Leni from associating with Matthew.
Leni is learning more and more that her parents' relationship isn't normal, and more importantly, that she doesn't want to have a relationship that works like theirs does. Leni and Matthew try to run from her father, but end up in a terrible accident with Matthew's life hanging in the balance. The straw that breaks the camel's back is when Leni announces to her father that she is pregnant with Matthew's baby. Her father lashes out at her, beating her for the first time in her life. During the beating, Leni and her mother make a decision that will forever alter the course of their life.
Years later, after Leni's mother passes away in Seattle, Leni returns to Alaska and to Matthew. After so much turmoil and heartache and difficulty, the ending of the book is sublime. Real, but still even more than you hoped for, especially when mired down in the hard parts where it seemed that there was no possible way that the book could have a happy ending. This book touched me and took over my brain because of this- I've seen this happen in life more often than not. It seems that there is no way that a happy ending can even be possible with all that someone goes through, yet somehow, God pulls it off. That is what keeps so many of us going.
This book is a little rough to read. There is domestic violence, injury, and heartbreak. It's not for the faint of heart, for sure. I'm sensitive to violence in books and want people to be aware of it if they are going to read a book based on my recommendation, but even with my sensitivity, I made it through this book with some quick skimming in places. If you are aware of that, and up for it, I highly recommend this one. It's a story that stays with you for sure!