Emma Hulse

Content Note: This article contains detailed discussions of PTSD, and brief mentions of domestic abuse and substance abuse.

“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.

These haunting lines from a Robert Service poem about the wilderness of Alaska provided Kristin Hannah with the perfect inspiration for the title of her book. The Great Alone takes place in America during the 1970s, at a tumultuous time marked by protests, bombings, and political scandal. Ernt Allbright, a Vietnam veteran and former POW, returns from the war a changed and volatile man. After losing yet another job, he makes the impulsive decision to take his family north into the depths of Alaska in search of a new beginning.

In the summer of 1974, the Allbright family piled into their VW bus and drove more than 2,000 miles to the small outpost of Kaneq, a cluster of paint-blistered shacks on an ageing boardwalk, all perched above a sea of mud. Yet, in spite of the bleak scene that greets them, Leni and her mother Cora cling to the memory of the man Ernt was Before, trusting that the simplicity and seclusion of the Alaskan way of life will help him recover.

“Soon Leni learns that the dangers outside pale in comparison to the threats from within.”

Throughout the first part of the novel, Hannah paints a vivid and memorable picture of a family trying to adjust to the harsh reality of life in Alaska. Drawing from her own childhood experiences, she describes the backbreaking work that went into preparing for winter: raising livestock, catching and smoking fish, building greenhouses to grow vegetables. However, the Allbrights are helped by the fierce generosity of their neighbours who teach them how to survive in this remote corner of the world, providing warmth and softening the edges of the bleak Alaskan environment. For the first time, Leni believes there might be a future here, a home for her and her family. She falls in love with the strong, vibrant people in her local community, and becomes intoxicated by the vast expanse of the mountains that dominate the landscape. Through Hannah’s impeccable writing, Alaska itself becomes a character in the novel – one that’s unpredictable, unforgiving, but beautiful.

Yet the long, sunlit days don’t last forever, and the shadow of winter looms in the periphery. As the darkness descends, Ernt’s fragile mental state deteriorates and the family begins to fracture. Soon Leni learns that the dangers outside pale in comparison to the threats from within their home.

As a result, the second half of the book takes a much darker turn as it deals with domestic abuse and how such situations can arise. I must admit that I did find some issues with the pacing in this section of the novel – there were too many dramatic events squeezed into a short space of time, without leaving the reader much time to process them. Despite this, I found the content extremely thought-provoking. As a reader, I felt a strange mixture of hatred and pity towards Ernt: his actions are truly monstrous, but I also felt forced to acknowledge that he was suffering with a mental illness at a time when no one was willing to call it such.


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The term ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ was used for the first time in a study in 1980. Prior to that, there were several terms that were used to describe the symptoms, such as ‘gross stress reaction’ or ‘post-Vietnam syndrome’, but very little was understood about the nature of those symptoms. For example, if a veteran experienced symptoms more than six months after their return home, it was deemed a pre-existing condition and they were not considered eligible for treatment by the United States Government. Yet, it is quite common for PTSD to take months, or even years, to develop following the traumatic experience, and so many of these veterans would have gone without medical help. Indeed, in a study carried out in 2013 – more than 40 years after the end of the war – it was found that 7% of women and 11% of men, amongst those who served in Vietnam, were still suffering with PTSD. Of those veterans, two thirds reported concerns related to substance abuse.

In this light, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the war destroyed so many lives, and The Great Alone helps to shed light on an issue that continues to impact people to this day. Yet, despite Ernt’s unforgivable behaviour that ends up tearing his family apart, Hannah’s novel is not one of hopelessness. For me, The Great Alone is about how familial love and human kindness can help us survive in the face of the wilderness that lives in both man and nature.

Sources: ‘PTSD and Vietnam Veterans: A Lasting Issue 40 Years Later’, US Department of Veterans Affairs, <https://www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/publications/agent-orange/agent-orange-summer-2015/nvvls.asp>