“The Great Alone” Review and Discussion Questions
Some books are meant to be devoured. Others should be savored. I devoured “The Great Alone” by Kristin Hannah. With ever-increasing stakes and intense themes like survival, love, and abuse, you can’t help but binge read it.
Summary of “The Great Alone”
After losing yet another job and inheriting a house in Alaska from a fallen comrade, Ernt Allbright, a Vietnam veteran, tells his wife, Cora, and his daughter, Leni, that they are moving to Alaska. In Alaska, the Allbrights get a crash course in homesteading. The sunny Alaskan summer combined with the manual labor helps Ernt’s PTSD. Leni and Cora are hopeful that things will be better in Alaska, but Leni quickly realizes that Ernt’s good mood won’t last long. Winter is coming.
Leni starts school and meets Matthew. The rest of the book is Leni’s coming of age story. She falls in love with Matthew and grows up while dealing with her erratic father and ineffectual mother. The plot thickens when Ernt’s jealousy toward Matthew’s father, Tom, turns to hatred.
Survival and Survivalists in “The Great Alone”
Tom is charming and well-to-do. Ernt is abusive and paranoid. No wonder he is jealous of Tom! To stroke his ego, Ernt seeks validation from his survivalist neighbor, Mad Earl.
Early in the book, Mad Earl asks Ernt to help his family prepare for “when the sh*t hits the fan.” Leni watches her father address Mad Earl’s family: “Dad pulled a folded newspaper from his back pocket, held it up. The headline read: Bomb on TWA Flight 841 Kills 88. ‘We might live in the bush, but we go to Homer and Sterling and Soldotna. We know what’s going on in the Outside. Bombings by the IRA, the PLO, Weatherman, Folks killing each other, kidnappings. All those girls disappearing in Washington State; now someone is killing girls in Utah. The Symbionese Liberation Army. India testing nuclear bombs. It’s only a matter of time before World War Three starts. It could be nuclear…or biological. And when that happens, the sh*t will really hit the fan.'”
Though this quote is about the 1970s, you could easily apply it to 2018 by substituting any of the ominous headlines we are bombarded with everyday. What’s worse is that our catastrophizing is unwarranted. We live in the safest time in history, according to Steven Pinker in “The Better Angels of Our Nature.”
The sh*t didn’t hit the fan in the 70s and it’s unlikely that it will hit the fan now. I’m reminded of a quote I love from the Doctor Who episode "The End of the World." In it, The Doctor says, “You lot, you spend all your time thinking about dying, like you're going to get killed by eggs or beef or global warming or asteroids. But you never take time to imagine the impossible, that maybe you survive.”
The irony of Ernt’s paranoia in “The Great Alone” is that preparing for the worst comes in handy in the foreboding and unforgiving Alaskan wilderness. But most of us aren’t living in the Alaskan bush and Hannah makes it clear that his ideas are extreme.
Portrayal of PTSD in “The Great Alone”
Hannah blames Ernt’s survivalist ideas on his experiences in Vietnam and his ensuing PTSD. At the beginning, Ernt struggles with what I as a layman associate with PTSD: nightmares, arousal symptoms, and mood swings. He was a prisoner of war in Vietnam war and came home a different man. At least that’s what Cora, Leni’s mother, tells her. Ernt’s quick temper scares Leni and she soon learns that he has been abusing Cora.
Throughout the book, Cora blames the war for Ernt’s behavior and repeatedly tells Leni that she wishes Leni remembered her dad from before the war. In fact, she repeats it so many times, I became skeptical. Cora continually makes excuses for her husband; couldn’t the war be another excuse? I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t tell you whether all of Ernt’s actions can be attributed to PTSD or not, but I am familiar with books, and it seems to me that we shouldn’t believe Cora. Maybe Ernt’s abuse became worse after the war, but he was probably abusing her before he left.
When Cora asks her mom for money before she moves to Alaska, Cora says, “I’m surprised you let me in.” Her mother tells her not to be impertinent and that she is always welcome. Cora retorts, “It’s my husband you wouldn’t allow in.” To which her mother says, “He turned you against us. And all of your friends, I might add. He wanted you all to him[self].”
Cora got pregnant with Leni at 16. This was the 1960s, so yes, having a pregnant teenager was shameful to most parents, but I thought there was more to her mother’s distaste for Ernt here, especially because she accuses Ernt of turning Cora against both her parents and her friends. Cora’s mother’s opinion of Ernt added to Cora’s suspicious chorus, “I wish you could remember your dad from before,” makes me wonder about Hannah’s intentions with Ernt’s character. Was she stereotyping PTSD? Did she accurately portray an extreme form of PTSD? Or was she too subtle in letting us readers know that Ernt was always abusive and the PTSD made it worse?
“The Great Alone” Review
PTSD aside, “The Great Alone” is an engrossing book. I finished it in a few days. Writing-wise, The Great Alone is consistent with ”The Nightingale,” flawless and gripping. Like “The Nightingale,” “The Great Alone” is written in third person but focalizes on two characters, Leni and Matthew. For a 464-page book, it moves quickly. I have mixed feelings about the plot twist, which I won’t spoil here, but it is jarring. Overall, the story is a bit dramatic for my taste. But the drama made it all the more engrossing, and I liked the end even if it was a bit cheesy.
“The Great Alone” Discussion Questions (WARNING: THESE QUESTIONS CONTAIN SPOILERS!)
How did you feel about Hannah’s portrayal of PTSD? Was it too stereotypical? Do you think Ernt was abusive before the war?
Compare and contrast the Allbright’s rural relocation and the 1970s back-to-the-land movement with current trends in sustainable living.
What are your thoughts about the homesteading aspect of The Great Alone? Could you live without running water? Would our environment be better off if more people homesteaded? What aspects of homesteading would you be willing to apply to your own life?
Ernt and Tom represent two very real sides to the issue of Alaskan tourism. Given Hannah’s Alaskan upbringing, could their opinions reflect Hannah’s own conflicted personal thoughts on the issue? Do you have any conflicting feelings about changes happening in your community?
Did you find Leni and Matthew’s relationship sweet? Melodramatic? Tragic? And how did Leni’s experience with her parents’ tumultuous relationship help or hinder her ability to continue to love Matthew after the accident?
If you’re familiar with trends in survivalism in the 1970s, how do they compare with interest in survivalism today? How about just after 9/11? Are survivalists motivated by fear? And how does fear make us vulnerable to ill-intentioned rhetorical techniques?
Why do you think Cora stayed with Ernt? Why didn’t she press charges when she had the chance? Was it love, fear, or something else that kept her from leaving?
Feel free to use these questions with your book club or answer them in the comments!
The Great Alone
By Kristin Hannah
St. Martin's Press. 448 pp.