What is the “final frontier” on the Earth's surface? Many people would say Alaska, the 49th state, which was added to the United States fifty years ago. Once one has traveled to that remote land, it is impossible to forget the magnificence of the terrain and beasts. Floating by ship in Glacier Bay, surrounded by ice the color of sky, is a surreal experience, especially when chunks of the ice suddenly break off and tumble toward the sea, leaving a froth of ice splinters streaming into the wake. The exciting experience of spotting a bull moose, larger than an elephant, sporting antlers that could easily impale any rival, is imprinted in memory as one of the Earth's greatest wonders once one has witnessed it in person.
Thus, the setting for Kristin Hannah's latest best seller, The Great Alone, is unique and mind boggling when the reader considers the risks that adventurers and daring settlers take, even today, when they attempt to live off the land in Alaska. This is the situation in which Hannah places a family from the “lower 48,” the Allbrights when Ernt, the survivor of being a POW during the Vietnam War, decides to move his wife, Cora, and thirteen year old daughter, Leni, when he surprisingly inherits a home and 40 acres of land from a friend who had been killed in Vietnam.
Plagued by untreated PTSD, and self-medicating with the consumption of alcohol, Ernt has been unable to keep a job since he returned from Southeast Asia. His wife, raised in an affluent home, has not only supported him, she has enabled him to the point that he has become not only verbally abusive, but physically abusive as well, taking out his frustrations on his pretty wife for his failures. Feeding Ernt's paranoia is his disgust with events occurring in 1974 Washington D.C., and the mysterious disappearances of young women in the Seattle area, signifying that a serial killer, a predator worse than a grizzly bear, is operating locally near where his family lives.
So, the Allbrights (or perhaps Hannah should have called them the Nonetoobrights) go off to Alaska in an aging van, unprepared and ignorant of the enormity of the adventure which they are seeking. The trip north is full of optimism that a fresh start feeds on; that is until the Allbrights see their new home for the first time. Located on the Kenai peninsula, the area in which their home is perched, Keneq, is cut off from the mainland by glaciers and mountains. Only thirty people make up the community of settlers, and many of them, like Mad Earl are a little looney and sport colorful names, like Large Marge and Crazy Pete. Although they are an odd assortment of kooky characters, most of these people are kindhearted and live by the principal of helping one's neighbor.
Nuzzled onto the edge of a cliff, the first site of the Allbright's new home is shocking for the naïve family. Small, dark, and rickety, the first thing that Leni notices when she enters the filthy shack is the stench of animal poop. With no electricity or running water, cleaning their new home will take days of hard labor. The interior décor is described as having, “Skinned log walls which displayed animal traps, fishing poles, baskets, frying pans, water buckets, nets. The kitchen---such as it was---took up one corner of the main room. Leni saw an old camp stove and a sink with no fixtures; beneath was a curtained-off space. On the counter sat an old ham radio, probably from World War II, cloaked in dust. In the center of the room, a black wood stove held court, its metal pipe rising up to the ceiling like a jointed tin finger pointed at heaven.” (p. 34) Worse yet, there is no bathroom in the cabin, but an outhouse to service the needs of the residents of this Shangri-la.
Despite their disappointment at the first site of the new Allbright homestead, Cora clings to optimism and promises Leni that they can make do without television, running water, or even electricity. Leni responds to her mother by murmuring, “We'll make the best of it . . . And he'll be happy this time.” (p. 35)
However, after befriending the local white supremacist, Mad Earl, Ernt begins to succumb to the rhetoric that his friend espouses. “The world's gone mad. A man has to protect himself. I came up here in '62. The Lower Forty-eight was already a mess. Commies everywhere. The Cuban Missile Crisis scarin' the shit outta people. Bomb shelters being built in backyards. I brung my family up here,” (p. 49) Mad Earl primes Ernt.
Despite the splendor of the landscape and the freedom of living off the land by shooting one's own meat and fishing for wild salmon, when the darkness of winter comes, Ernt Allbright morphs into someone strangely akin to Jack Torrance in Stephen King's The Shining. While the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel in Colorado pitch Torrance into dangerously manic behavior that threatens his family, Ernt evolves into a monster fueled by fear of hunger, drowned in alcohol, and propelled by ghosts from his experiences in Vietnam. Things eventually become so bad for the Allbrights that their neighbors step in and banish Ernt to work on the Alaskan pipeline during the winter months to keep him away from his women.
Leni, from whose point of view the story is seen, takes solace in reading, going to school at the A-frame log school house in town, when the weather permits, and falling in love with the tall, handsome son of the wealthiest man in the neighborhood, Tom Walker. Tom, owner of the successful local tavern, has a vision of what he wants Alaska to become in the future, a wilderness to which visitors from the lower 48 can escape for a while, equipped with such modern amenities as toilets. However, Ernt's paranoia about his perception of flirtation going on between Cora and Tom, propels his fury and makes him all the more dangerous. And, when Leni falls in love with Matthew Walker, Ernt's rage in uncontrollable.
As a title for her novel Hannah chose The Great Alone, a phrase taken from a poem by the early 20th century poet, Robert Service, best known for his piece called “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” The lines that Hannah used come from a poem entitled “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” which read:
Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the Moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you 'most could hear?
Aside from being a phrase that describes the lives of those who struggle to survive in such a remote place, the lines from the Service poem operate with double meaning for the main character, Leni Allbright, who is only 13 years old at the novel's opening. Leni, who has learned important life saving skills in school as well as on the land, has a lonely existence cut off from other kids her age, especially as her father sinks into further despair. Her mother's self-pitying behavior casts a pall of guilt over Leni as the girl contemplates escape from her Dad who is becoming increasingly manic as the story goes on.
The Great Alone maintains a high level of interest for the reader, largely due to Hannah's first hand knowledge of what it means to survive in “the Great Alone.” Her own family moved to Alaska and founded a well-known hotel called the Great Alaska Adventure Lodge, which operates today in Sterling, Alaska. Therefore, Hannah is able to draw on stories that she has heard, and personal trials that she has had in her time in the “final frontier.” Long after the reader finishes the novel, the characters and story stays with her as she thinks about how things might have gone differently for the Allbright family, or whether fate had destined their future once they got into their Volkswagen van and headed for their American adventure.