Review: The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
I haven't read a book by this author in a while. Not because I don't enjoy her books but because my taste in books has changed in the last few years. I have a tendency to read more literary fiction than genre fiction. I hadn't even realized this book had been released until one Saturday when an Author's Ink customer and I were chatting about books and Alaska, and she asked if I'd read The Great Alone. She raved about it and I've never been disappointed in a KH novel (though I do tend to need a Kleenex when I read them), so I made a note to grab a copy.
First, let me say, that I love the cover. It's elegant and I found myself caressing the raised letters on it periodically. (Surely I'm not the only one who does that!) I decided to ignore the back cover blurb and dove right in. It's just over 500 pages in length, so I knew I'd have to get started or I'd never get it read...life is just so busy these days that I've taken to snatching every spare minute I can to get #allthethingsdone.
Second, to avoid spoiling the book for anyone and because I'm doing some #minibookreviews over on Instagram for The Great Alone, I'm having a hard time putting my thoughts together. I'll break things up into categories...
Characters: I liked them a lot. Cora, Ernt, and Large Marge, were all great. Sure, Ernt was easy to hate but he played his role well. The characters had depth. They were unique and interesting. Leni and Matthew were my favorites, though I didn't think Matthew reached his full potential until the latter part of the book. Right around page 358, Leni and Matthew really came into their own. To me, that was when their relationship really solidified and they shone as individuals.
I will add that I didn't find some of the character behaviors and activities realistic. Some of them were just too easy....too far fetched to really be believable.
Story structure/pace: These were such challenges to me as a reader and as a writer. The pacing was too fast, the scenes were too fleeting. I often felt like I was being told the story instead of getting to see the story unfold. There were many, many times when I felt I was being reminded of what had just happened. As a writer, I know how easy it is to fall into the trap of "dumbing it down" for your readers. I don't think it's ever intentional but it does happen--we think we need to relay every small detail time and again--just in case the reader doesn't remember a detail or doesn't understand what we're trying to say. The truth is, if we think the reader can't understand it, then we haven't done a good job of showing the reader the story line.
Setting: The novel is set near Homer, Alaska, which is pretty cool. I've been to Homer but in the last two years, so it was hard for me to picture what it must have been like in the 1970s and 1980s. And maybe back then, Alaskans went by nicknames like Large Marge and Mad Earl...I mean, I guess I know a few folks in Alaska who have nicknames (Little Girl, Baby Brother)...yeah, I know some folks. Okay, I've talked myself out of being annoyed by that.
But I wanted more. Don't tell me Leni bagged a wild animal and then butchered the meat for her poor family. Show me how she carved up the animal on a piece of cardboard on the kitchen floor. Don't tell me they picked berries, made jam, and stored the little jars, using them all year long. Show me how they labored in the tundra picking those berries until their fingers were stained and their backs ached. Don't tell me that Ernt isn't the man he used to be because of the war. Show me what he experienced in Vietnam by cracking open his nightmares that woke the entire household with his screaming and thrashing. Don't tell me the family was on edge because of the stress. Show me how they walked on eggshells around each other and make me feel it.
Just when I thought I was going to have to trudge my way through to the end of the book, things changed about 150 pages from the end. The pacing improved, the story line grabbed my heart, and the character dialogue become (sporadically) more authentic. There was still quite a bit of repetitious reminders about what had just happened a few pages back, but I wasn't as annoyed because I was captivated by what was going on.
I won't say more because I don't want to spoil the book for anyone. For me, The Great Alone is a good book but not a great book for all the reasons above. It's not a book I'll reread, though I would recommend it to others because there are some positive aspects to it and because that last part gripped me. In fact, last night the power went out and it was too early to go to bed. I grabbed my reading light and tucked myself into my favorite chair. The quiet, dark house made for perfect reading time! I sat there until I read the last page because I had to know how Hannah was going to tie up all the loose ends.
If you want to talk about the details, follow me @vjolene_author on Instagram and join me in the book discussion. If you're not finished with the book yet, don't worry. Just check my posts for the page number and participate when you reach that point in the book. I'd love to hear what you think about Leni, her family's adventure, and the end of that book.