Book Review: The Great Alone

“Two kinds of people come up to Alaska, Cora.  People running to something, and people running from something.  The second kind–you want to keep your eye out for them.  And it isn’t just the people you need to watch out for, either.  Alaska herself can be Sleeping Beauty one minute and a bitch with a sawed off shotgun the next.  There’s a saying:  Up here you can make one mistake.  The second one will kill you.”

With those words, Large Marge, proprietor of the General Store, welcomes Ernt and Cora Allbright and their teenage daughter, Leni, to Kunaq, Alaska in April of 1974.

The Allbrights are definitely running away  from something, namely society at large and Ernt’s PTSD, the result of six years as a POW in Vietnam.  They are successful at escaping the former, but not the latter.

This is Leni’s story of surviving both the harsh realities of life in the Alaskan Bush, and of being the daughter of a PTSD stricken veteran, in a world that has no definition or treatment for it.

Hannah has a gift for creating living, breathing characters, and for weaving a storyline that twists in ways the reader never expects. From the first page, I had a hard time putting this book down.  Even with the outdoors beckoning, I consumed it in three days.

Part of the reason that I am entranced by this book is because of the similarities between life in the Alaskan Bush and life in the wilds of Northwest Montana.  Hannah lived in Alaska for years, and her attention to authentic detail proves it.

Yes, people really do rely on the deer and elk they hunt and the fish they catch to put meat on the table; we know a number of them. On our retirement income, we supplement our grocery budget with the deer we hunt, and the pike, Kokanee salmon, and trout we catch.

Yes, women hunt! When we lived in Georgia, John and plenty of his friends hunted, but none of us wives did.  Out here, hunting seems to be a couples sport for many; I even know single women who hunt. And they start early; one of our neighbors took her first elk at age thirteen!  I joined in this fall and harvested my first deer.

Yes, there are preppers.  And there are varying degrees of preppers.  Some are as extreme as Ernt and Mad Earl, but many are every day people who you’d never know were into preparedness unless you know the signs to look for, or unless they outright tell you, which is rare.

Yes, summer really is all about preparing for winter.  One of the jokes about winter in Montana: Sure, we have four seasons here.  They are early winter, winter, late winter, and preparing for winter.  As a follower of this blog, you know that we spend time each week right now cutting the firewood that will heat our home next winter.

Summer months are spent growing, canning, and freezing food for the winter. The great majority of my friends and neighbors preserve, whether by canning or freezing, food grown during our short summers.  Granted, we are not dependent upon our gardens for food as the Allbrights are, but it is part of our way of life.

Yes, people really do live in areas that are almost inaccessible during the winter months. Count us in.  Our driveway is famous amongst our friends.  It is a half mile long, steep, curvy, and difficult in the winter. You must have 4 wheel or all wheel drive, and either studded winter snow tires or gnarly monster chains, sometimes both, to navigate it during the snowy months.

The highway to our house has a dangerous wintertime reputation, thanks to snowstorms, fast drivers, deer, and elk.  I am not sure which frightens me the most, but we have had enough close calls with each of them to plan our wintertime activities so that we are rarely out during the dark hours, which means we leave the house after 8 am, and get home by 4:30.

Yes, people really do heat their homes with woodstoves. Count us in again. Surprised?  I was, too!  A lot of people who live in rural Montana rely on wood burning stoves as their primary source of heat. It provides a bone warming heat that a furnace cannot duplicate.

Yes, the threat of nighttime predators is real.  We lock our birds and goats up tight at night in sturdy coops and a barn.  Every winter we find mountain lion kills just yards from the old logging roads we use for snowshoeing.  Last winter, we found a kill within sight distance of our shop.  We have friends who had two goats killed and drug off by the large cats.

Yes, because of the above, people really do walk around armed at all times. John and I each carry a Glock 9mm pistol each time we walk out our front door.  Open carry without a permit is legal and common in both Alaska and Montana.

Granted I live a more civilized life than the Allbrights did.  We have running water, indoor plumbing, electricity, internet. But the commonalities that so many people here share with the Allbrights convinces me that the greater challenges the Allbrights and their small community face are authentically created.

If you are looking for a novel that is beautifully written, educational, and full of unexpected events,  “The Great Alone” is your book.

Let me know what you think!

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