Thank you my friend for encouraging me to read it.
A story that won’t quit, readers follow a lonely 13-year-old girl as her parents make one last desperate move to Alaska, in order to help her father Ernt combat his Vietnam PTSD. But only through this last ditch effort does her mother Cora’s struggles with Ernt get revealed.
How do you convince yourself to leave the person you love when they’re feeling so hurt?
I’m going to come right out and say it, even though it is a huge SPOILER. This book contains domestic violence. It is a tale of abuse. And that makes it a difficult read. Even though it’s a fast page-turner, even though you won’t be able to put it down, it is a real struggle to endure the hitting, bruises, and pain, since throughout this novel, you just play the role of the bystander.
How fitting…A book about domestic violence that complains the family can’t get help because the victims are often blamed, due to that 70s timeline, and yet for all that I want to help, I can’t…
But for all that this book scares you away, I couldn’t walk away from it. It had too many conflicts; it seemed too realistic. And with too many facets arranged perfectly to compliment one another, it was too well-rounded of a novel to abandon it halfway through.
I think we’re looking at a low 4 here, possibly even a 3. One thing I noticed throughout the novel, is there is a lot of really particular word choice. There are acronyms made up. There are almost onomatopoeias throughout the book since spelling can be forsaken due to accents or drunkenness. And, there’s mostly some good sentence variation. There are singles, compounds, complex, fragments. It’s not the most poetic or beautiful, but there’s variation. But, I really struggled with the variation between action–reaction–reflection, ARR.
Loo…s great,” Dad said, shoveling a forkful of moose meat into his mouth, chewing noisily. He looked up, bleary-eyed. “You two have a lot of catching up to do. Earl and I were talking about it. When TSHTF, you two would be the first casualties.”
“TSHTF? What in God’s name are you talking about?” Mama said.
Leni shot her mother a warning look. Mama knew better than to say anything about anything when he was drunk.
“When the shit hits the fan. You know. Martial law…”(Hannah 92)
Looking above, we can see the amount of bold font that represents the actions throughout this scene. There’s quite a lot because we’re closely focused on these 3 family members interacting. Makes sense, especially when we’re building the imagery of this scene. We can then see the amount of reaction in this scene. Very minimalistic. Emotions are built within a few words or a single sentence, and this is a pattern continued throughout the book. There’s never really too much deep exploration of feelings. And finally, we can see the reflection underlined. Leni’s thought is explored in a single sentence. Because there’s more action than reaction-reflection, it does feel very unbalanced. And, it might be to what I can attribute to this being such a fast-paced novel. There’s a lot of action pushing this book forward. And, there’s just enough reaction-reflection to keep you invested in the character. So, again, it’s not the most beautifully written book, but it’s definitely a page-turner, which is why I think I’ll settle for a 3.5.
This book’s perspective is so weird. Most of the novel is set in the eyes of Leni, but then, on page 196 (out of 438; 45% through the novel), it switches over to Matthew’s POV, which is really random, especially since I think we only see his perspective around two more times throughout the book.
And, don’t get my wrong, I get the reasoning why the author might’ve done this. Matthew had run away from Kaneq. And in this chapter, he made the decision to return. Without this chapter from Matthew’s perspective, that decision could’ve felt forced, artificial, like it was only for Leni’s growth and development, which would’ve made his character felt weak. Like, he was just under the whim of Leni’s plotline. But by doing this random chapter, it felt a little more purposeful.
Still doesn’t feel right to have such a close perspective and suddenly shift.
Leni was afraid to stay and afraid to leave. It was strange—stupid, even—but she often felt like the only adult in her family, as if she were the ballast that kept the creaky Allbright boat on an even keel. Mama was engaged in a continual quest to “find” herself. In the past few years, she’d tried EST and the human potential movement, spiritual training, Unitarianism. Even Buddhism. She’d cycled through them all, cherry-picked pieces and bits. Mostly, Leni thought, Mama had come away with T-shirts and sayings. Things like, What is, is, and what isn’t, isn’t. None of it seemed to amount to much.(Hannah 4)
I’ll still give the perspective a 4. Leni for a main character is quite developed. We know her family, even through her mother’s side—no idea what happened to her father’s family. They were never mentioned. We know she has no friends and loves to read. We know she was typically a lonely person in school due their frequent moves (since her father couldn’t hold down a job). The only thing that I would say is really lacking is that for a novel that encourages independence and survival, she never really seems to develop her own. Don’t get me wrong, throughout the novel, she did become more internally independent. She became reflective and critical of her father, which made her change her beliefs of her parents’ relationship. So, her perspective was definitely independent. But, that internal independence never externalized. She never truly acted on her beliefs. She did rebel against her father by loving Matthew, which in of itself could argue independence. But, she never forced her mother to run away, and she couldn’t have escaped her father’s clutches without having Matthew’s help. I guess, she did argue to keep the baby. But, then she and her mother were always dependent on her grandparents’ wealth to survive. And, when Leni was arrested, she was dependent on others’ for her escape. It seems to me this novel was almost about dependence or finding others for help, then encouraging an almost heroic, independent endeavor.
“Be careful, you two. Things aren’t good between your dads.” (208)
Does that make you think of Romeo and Juliet? Because I couldn’t not think it once I read that quote. But, this falling-in-love/coming-of-age plot is only one facet of the novel. What I really enjoyed about this book is how many plot lines it had going at once, and how many of them were interwoven.
I would argue the main theme of this book is domestic violence. You can see it in the inside cover with “Ernt’s fragile mental state deteriorates and the family begins to fracture. Soon the perils outside pale in comparison to threats from within.” And, then you see this theme again, on the first page of the novel: “Weather like this brought out the darkness in her father.” But, what totally throws me over the moon for this book is how everything supports this major theme. We watch the character’s independence develop as they work up the courage to leave Ernt. We see the character’s literal survival in the state of Alaska over the winter reflect the same survival inside of their home, living daily with the dangers of Ernt. The only one that doesn’t seem to really support this major theme is the coming-of-age theme. It seems an effort used mostly due to the popularity of sales. Look,I understand Leni’s love for Matthew forces her to rebel and become independent, but this seems extrinsically done, versus intrinsically and naturally supporting this main theme. Because that survival aspect is used both literally and internally within the characters’ escape from domestic violence, I’m going to have to give this book’s originality a 5.
With no local police and no one to call for help. All this time, Dad how taught Leni how dangerous the outside world was. The truth was that the biggest danger of all was in her own home.(Hannah 126)
I think this quote speaks for itself. Time and time again, we encounter Leni’s struggle for survival with her father at home. They only feel safest when he’s away at the pipeline, sending money back home through the winter. And, I feel that for as much as this book stresses independence, I think it encourages dependence instead. Think about it.
Cora can never convince herself that Ernt doesn’t love her, so as much as the man does abuse her, she never runs away.
And Leni is a kid, a kid who acts too old for her age and can’t convince herself to abandon her mother. After all, they’re two peas in a pod. If she left, who would look out for Cora instead?
The whole town is compromised of kooks and crazies, each whom escaped to Alaska to be left all alone, and yet, they’re the first to offer a hand. To reach out to help. And as much as they offer, Cora and Leni never seem to accept.
And how much we want to, we as the reader. We stand on the sidelines. We watch the swings and the hits, the hands connecting to face and to cheek. And, we’re the first to want to defend, and yet it’s a book. I can’t break through to that wall.
It isn’t until Leni connects with a boy that they finally get help, finally accept help. And it makes me wonder, if this book is all about violence, but about not being a bystander, about not standing on the sidelines and about getting down and getting dirty if it means helping someone else survive. After all, we’re all in this community together.
I’d give it a 5.
Hannah, Kristin. The Great Alone. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2018. Print.