Monday, March 26, 2018

Book Review - The Great Alone

The Great Alone , by bestselling author Kristin Hannah, was the first selection in our new neighborhood book club. The Great Alone is a nickname for Alaska, and the novel's description intrigued me, so I eagerly started reading. 

Almost immediately, I had a hard time getting into the story. While the main character, Leni, a 13-year-old girl, is engaging, her parents are not. The dad, Ernt, scarred from being a POW during the Vietnam War, is abusive and anti-social and hates anyone with money.

His problems started before the war, though; at 25, he got involved with Leni’s mother, Cora, who was only 16. She got pregnant, and he should have been put in prison for statutory rape.

Cora is a simpering weakling who takes her abusive husband back time after time, naively believing his promises that he “will never do it again.” While this is an accurate portrayal of battered woman syndrome and younger readers will definitely be shocked by the lack of help the law offered women in the 1970s, it’s hard to have sympathy for Cora when her daughter suffers the consequences of her poor role modeling and this violent man.

When Ernt inherits a homestead in Alaska from a war buddy who was killed, he decides he wants to leave civilization and live off the grid. He drags his wife and daughter to a dilapidated cabin with no running water, heat, or electricity, and where Cora and Leni have to be constantly vigilant against attacks from bears and wolves.  

The nearby “town” has few people and a one-room schoolhouse. In Ernt’s zeal to be far
from society, the idea of there being a school for Leni to attend didn’t even cross his mind. Neither of these adults is likeable. While they can do what they want, they seem oblivious to the fact that they are condemning their child to live in a place where she has no opportunity or future.

If I hadn’t been reading this book for the book club, I would have quit after Chapter One. I had to force myself to plod on. Around page 250, I was surprised to see the plot finally kick in. Then I couldn’t put the book down. The first 250 pages could have been condensed into 50-75 to keep the story moving. The problem with the last 200, though, is that the real plot is rushed. What was in these pages should have been the entire book but stretched out and expanded. I’m not sure why the editors at St. Martin’s Press didn’t see this.

While the author’s writing is very visual, the descriptions of Alaska’s desolation are well done, and the state certainly seems to have unparalleled beauty, Hannah’s constant intrusion into the story was annoying. Her frequent asides in parentheses to the readers should have been edited out. Example: “Leni got out of the plane carefully (nothing was more dangerous up here than getting wet in the winter).”

Also, when reading the narrative portions, it often seemed we were in the author’s head and not in a character’s. The viewpoint of Leni as a 13-year-old is that of an adult—again, the author. Leni knows names of trees, plants, and places that are not yet part of her experience, and she can tell the ages of adults (that one looks 40 and that one looks 50), which no child that young could do. These adults would just be “old.”

Also, there was repeated dialogue—one character saying the exact same unusual phrasing of words that a previous character had said (again an editing problem)—and changes of viewpoint that appeared very late in the story and weren’t really necessary.

I do have to say that the ending is satisfying and worth getting to, but as I mentioned, the story moves in a slow, boring, and aggravating manner for those first 250 pages and then speeds through the real meat. If you are looking for a story that hooks you from the first page, this one falls far short of the mark.

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