By: Kristin Hannah
I added this book to my TBR list mainly because I love Kristin Hannah. However, I kept choosing other books to read and left this book on my shelf for a while. I don’t know much about Alaska, and I wasn’t interested in the Vietnam War era in America, so I kept overlooking this book. I am thrilled to say that I finally decided to read this book. Hannah continues to prove she is an incredible writer, and this book was so much more than its summary laid on.
“Books are the mile markers of my life. Some people have family photos or home movies to record their past. I’ve got books. Characters. For as long as I can remember, books have been my safe place.”
The Allbrights are the main characters in this story. The reader follows the Allbrights through the lens of Leni, the daughter of Ernt and Cora Allbright. Ernt was a POW in the Vietnam War and, since his return, has been suffering from mental illness, which has turned him into an abusive husband and mentally unstable father. Cora still holds on to the hope that one-day Ernt will return to his pre-war ways and show them the love and care he used to. Leni witnesses the mental abuse her mother encounters and eventually, as she grows up, becomes witness to the physical abuse. Leni knows this isn’t acceptable behaviour and urges her mother to go to the police or leave her father, but Cora refuses.
The reader begins this story with the Allbrights in Seattle; it quickly becomes apparent that Ernt and Cora have financial problems. The family moves from one city to another, hoping for a better life. Then one day, Ernt comes home and tells the family that his friend from the Vietnam war left him his home in Alaska and that the family will be moving north. Cora and Leni are not excited about this, they have moved so many times already, and they fear that Alaska will be the hardest move of all. Nonetheless, they follow along with Ernt’s plan, and the family begins their drive to Alaska.
“Did adults just look at the world and see what they wanted to see, think what they wanted to think? Did evidence and experience mean nothing?”
Once they reach Kaneq, Alaska, they immediately are in awe of the beauty but completely frightened to see the smallness of the town. Barely 50 residents live in town, a town with minimal electricity and running water, the home they inherited having neither. The Albrights meet many friendly neighbours when they arrive, all offering to assist them in their move. That is one of the most prominent themes of this book, how friendly and helpful the Alaskan people are. There are also quite a few not-so-good characters that the readers are introduced to, specifically Mad Earl, who seems to make Ernt’s mental illness far worse.
At first, Ernt seems to be doing well, possibly reverting to his pre-war character but slowly, things begin to unravel, especially when the dark Alaskan winter begins.
“She knew the difference between fact and fiction, but she couldn’t abandon her love stories.”
I really liked Leni’s character; I felt her sorrow, her isolation and her fear. She was a young girl experiencing family troubles, witnessing things she couldn’t fully understand. I found it difficult to read through her feelings of loneliness since she could never settle at a school long enough to make friends. However, once the family moved to Alaska, it was heartwarming to finally see her feel like she could fit in somewhere. I loved how much Alaska became her home and how she grew into such an independent, fierce and self-sufficient woman.
“He taught her something new about friendship: it picked right back up where you’d left off, as if you hadn’t been apart at all.”
Cora was very frustrating to read. It was very hard listening to her excuses for Ernt’s behaviour and her reasons for not leaving him. However, I understand how difficult it can be for a victim to leave her abuser and how hope and denial can keep one tied to their abusive partner. Hannah does a great job of developing Cora’s character and makes you feel compassion for Cora rather than anger.
Cora and Leni’s relationship held this story together in so many ways, and their relationship grows far beyond the mother-daughter family tie; they become each other’s partner and saviour in life.
“A girl was like a kite; without her mother’s strong, steady hold on the string, she might just float away, be lost somewhere among the clouds.”
There is nothing to like about Ernt, but his role was vital to this story. His character shows the reader the importance of mental health support for veterans. They experience so many traumatic events in their lives, and if they aren’t given the support they need, it is easy to see how Ernt’s behaviour can be the result. It is scary to think how many other women experience or have experienced this type of aggression from mentally unstable men returning from war. His character is essential in bringing these types of situations to light.
The side characters in this book, in my opinion, made the story what it was. I loved seeing the Alaskan people come together to support one another. I can see how one would stay in a small isolated community like this if they had friends around them like the Allbrights did. The hospitality that is shown by the neighbours in this small town would rarely be seen elsewhere. As the years progressed, the friendships they made with the people in Kaneq became much more critical for the survival of the Allbrights.
“In time, his grief had turned to anger and then drifted toward sorrow, and now, finally, it had settled into a lingering sadness that was a part of him, not the whole.”
I must also mention that Hannah did not make living in Alaska seem appealing, at least not to me. I understand how some may love the idea of living off the land, away from everything but, why do that in such a cold climate? In such a harsh landscape? I think it is pretty clear that I will not be moving to Alaska anytime soon!
Overall, the characters were really interesting, and the story was captivating. The last few chapters I couldn’t put down. However, I think there were just a bit too many traumatic events in this story; it was a bit over the top. It did seem at times that sadness and despair were the only intentions of some of the storylines. It even made me feel a bit disconnected from the plot because it just seemed like nothing positive could happen and when you thought things would change, they ended up only getting worse. Some of the terrible things that happened seemed almost unnecessary to the story. That being said, I still could not put this book down, and that is solely credit to Hannah’s absolutely incredible writing skills that even when I felt a bit disconnected from the story, I was still glued to the book!
Although this story was not as good as The Nightingale, I still enjoyed reading it, and I would recommend it to all Kristin Hannah fans.
Which Kristin Hannah books have you read?