Prather’s Pick: A novel set in Alaska
I was drawn to this week’s novel because its setting is Alaska, and that’s where my son Jamie and his family live. The novel is set around Homer, Kaneq, the Kenai Peninsula, and Homer Spit, all actual places in Alaska—right down to the Salty Dawg Saloon.
“The Great Alone” was written by Kristin Hannah. It is published by St. Martin’s Griffin (2018). It has received all kinds of recognition, including “New York Post Best of 2018” and Oprah’s “Best Books to Read.” There’s a lot to this 545-page book. In a “Conversation with Kristin Hannah” at the end of the book, the reader gets some insight into her writing of the novel. One of her motivations was to “delve deeply into this world… and to try to understand and present people who live there year-round.” Her characters are homesteaders who lived in Alaska during the 1970s.
But that’s not all. It’s also about family dynamics, particularly a relationship between mother and daughter. I was affected by the impact of a country divided by war as the novel takes place following the Vietnam War. The effects of war on one of its soldiers (and on America) is what drives the plot.
It’s 1974 as the novel begins. Leni Allbright, a thirteen-year-old girl, is listening to her parents as they shout at one another. They didn’t used to argue, but that was before when Dad (Ernt) was a mechanic and they lived in a trailer park and before he went off to the Vietnam War. Mama (Cora) and Leni moved around until they finally settled in a commune in Seattle.
Dad and Bo Harlen, a door gunner, got shot down and were captured together. Bo died. When Dad came home he had changed. Now he remains distant and is quick to get angry. He can’t keep a job, and he says things like, “It’s not my America anymore.”
Then one day Dad gets a letter from Earl Harlen, Bo’s father. Bo has left Dad his land in Alaska—forty acres with a cabin that needs fixing. The land is at Kaneq, and Dad can reach Earl through the Homer Post Office. Dad needs a new beginning so he sells his coin collection, Mama borrows money from her mother (who wants her daughter to leave Ernt), they trade in their Mustang for a VW, and they leave for Alaska.
The family settles in where they work hard to fix up the cabin (without electricity or water) and to preserve food for the winter. Leni starts school where she meets Matthew. At first the family is happy, but as winter approaches, Dad and Earl Harlan become paranoid about the dangers of another war. They drink too much. As seasonal darkness settles in, Dad’s moodiness returns. He becomes angry and takes it out on Mama.
The author is skillful in writing about the beauty of Alaska’s landscape but also the challenges that the wilderness provides. The events of the novel feel raw, but it is an excellent read.I purchased “The Great Alone” in paperback. It sells for $17.99.