The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

I put this on hold when I saw it was forthcoming based purely on having enjoyed The Nightingale so much. But when I got it in hand I thought “hmm…do I really want to read this?” and let it sit around the house for a week and a half before picking it up. At which point I became so consumed, and had a free weekend, that I spent a weekend reading it and couldn’t stop until I reached the end. I have a lot of Thoughts about this book, and can’t wait to discuss it with Melissa, who is also reading it.

<There will probably be some spoilers in this brief recap.> In 1978, Leni and her parents head off to Alaska, the Last Frontier, to make a new start in life. Things have been rough since her dad returned from Vietnam-a POW for 6 years he clearly was tortured and has horrible PTSD. He isn’t great at holding down a job and is tormented by nightmares and prone to drinking. They arrive in Alaska with plans to homestead on property left to her dad. They are woefully unprepared for life up there, and appropriately frightened by the number of people who warn them that they need to spend all summer preserving or storing food, or they’ll never make it through the winter. Physical survival turns out not to be their greatest concern, though, as, much like in The Shining, the isolation and endless dark of the winter exacerbate her dad’s (Ernt. His name is Ernt. That right there was the perfect character name.) mental illness and proclivities towards violence. This was a pretty long book and yes, much of it I read while fearing for Leni’s survival. It seemed from the get go that someone would need to die-whether from Ernt, a weather related mishap, or something else. It’s mentioned many times in the book that 5 out of 1000 Alaskans simply vanished every year and there were thousands of ways to die up there. I really enjoyed all of the characters, especially Large Marge.

My only Alaskan frame of reference is the tv show Northern Exposure, which I loved. I couldn’t help but think of Tom Walker as a bit like Maurice-someone with money who has made a beautiful house out there in the wilderness. But as much as the little town in Northern Exposure was a small Alaskan town, they did have electricity and running water. That’s what I really couldn’t get over-homesteading up there was practically like being Laura Ingalls-but with even more danger all around. So all that food had to preserved without convenient stove tops. They didn’t really have furniture and I’m sure Leni’s sleeping bag wasn’t REI rated for below zero temps.
Alaska itself is basically a character in the story-it’s so important to every aspect of the book and the characters.  The natural beauty of Alaska definitely came through in the story and made me long to see it–but unspoiled, as Leni originally experiences it.
This was a terrific book with so much to think about and imagine and ponder.

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The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

nightingaleThis was one of my top ten favorite books of 2015. This was a heartbreaking, sad, emotional, and intense read. I knew all that going in because I knew it was about a woman in France in WWII whose husband goes off to the war and the Nazis come to her village. Nazis, French Resistance, concentration camps–I just knew characters were going to die, there would be horrible actions, and it would make me question humanity. Because that’s what any WWII book does to me. But I keep reading them and with every one there is something new I learn, some new viewpoint or facet to the war that I hadn’t thought/learned about. In this case it was the French village and what it was like when it became occupied.

I thought this was a wonderful story. Yes, very sad, but warm moments of hope too. In fact, the structure of the book-beginning with a contemporary situation-lets you know that clearly not everyone is going to die. I actually didn’t think this structure added much and was slightly distracting to me.
So much to think about and talk about, it’s no wonder this was so popular last year and a popular book discussion book.