MARCH 27, 2018
KRISTIN HANNAH, the author of over 20 novels, is best known for her New York Times best seller and Wall Street Journal Book of the Year The Nightingale, a story of sisterhood and resistance in World War II–era France. Her latest novel examines a different type of women’s war, one that speaks to the pressing issues raised by #MeToo and #TimesUp. The Great Alone is set in Alaska in 1974, but its themes — the experience of womanhood, trauma, and personal survival — have special resonance today. The novel’s evocative descriptions of Alaska’s unforgiving climate bring a definite sense of place to the story of 13-year-old Leni Allbright’s harrowing journey into womanhood. With beauty and grit, The Great Alone explores identity, isolation, love, and survival in sisterhood.
Kristin Hannah’s own family migrated to Alaska as homesteaders in the 1980s and later founded the Great Alaska Adventure Lodge, an all-inclusive resort. As her novel’s fictional homesteaders clash over proposed changes in the face of increasing tourism, one might wonder whether the events of The Great Alone aren’t drawn directly from the author’s experience. Leni’s father Ernt perceives the influx of tourists as a threat to his personal freedom; he is reluctant to sacrifice his invisibility for a higher quality of life. But the negative effects of Ernt’s isolation take their toll: facing violence both in nature and from her father, Leni fights to free herself and find a better home.
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 […]
And hunger not of the belly kind, that’s banished with bacon and beans,
But the gnawing hunger of lonely men for a home and all that it means …
— Robert Service
Though we’d never spoken before, I felt an immediate connection to Hannah. I also grew up in Alaska, and much of what Hannah describes in The Great Alone rings true to me; the offbeat sensibility of Alaskans is unmistakable, no matter how far they venture into “civilization.” Given Hannah’s warmth and down-to-earth manner, it was easy to picture her sipping coffee from a campfire kettle with the homesteaders who inspired her work. But while her manner is comfortable, her perspective is not: The Great Alone tackles numerous controversial topics, not least among them being domestic violence against women. For this interview, we discussed the landscapes of her fiction, the realities of mental illness, and the challenges women face in Alaska and beyond.
RJ NEWELL: In The Great Alone, Alaska serves as a living stage that reflects and affects the inner lives of your characters. What is it about Alaska in particular that inspired you, and why?
KRISTIN HANNAH: My family has a long history in Alaska … We’ve had three generations up on this piece of land. I’ve always just been really intrigued with the idea of the people in our modern era who are essentially pioneers, who go where others don’t go and who manage to wrest a life from a landscape that is as beautiful as anything you’ve ever seen, but can turn deadly in an instant. I’ve wanted to show that Alaska for a long time. I loved this idea of, you know, Large Marge [an especially resilient character in The Great Alone], who now lives in a yurt and takes her showers at the laundromat and used to be a big-city prosecutor … You’d run across people like that in Alaska all the time.
When I go up and hang out with my dad’s wife’s girlfriends and some of my friends in Alaska, they are such a remarkably different group of women than I’ve met anywhere else. And a lot of them, interestingly enough, were like Cora [Leni’s mother], and came to Alaska because it was their man’s dream. The relationships didn’t go anywhere, but the women stayed. They forged this new life, where they’re now doing stuff like driving carpool in between moose hunts. It’s just amazing to me, sitting and listening to them talk, hearing just how different their world is and how tough they are. And they still band together as women, to support and help each other.
Ernt, Cora, and Leni move to Alaska in the hopes of easing Ernt’s undiagnosed PTSD symptoms — paranoia, flashbacks, nightmares — and to escape “the real world” and its systems that failed them. But up north, the harsh realities of life tend to be multiplied. Can you talk about the way your characters unravel in writing?
I wrote a lot of versions of this. I always knew, once I got started, that I had something pretty serious that I wanted to say. I sort of came of age during the Vietnam War, and I guess I’m just really invested in this topic. Ernt could not have picked a worse place to move to, or made a worse choice with what was going on in his life — this increasing darkness and isolation and cold, and to also stumble across Mad Earl, who sort of feeds into his paranoia.
The real trick for me as a writer was to show this with the honesty that I wanted to show it, and have compassion for Ernt’s situation — even though obviously he becomes incredibly dangerous — and to balance all of that so that it wasn’t a book that was relentlessly grim. It was really important for me that this also be a book about the joy that Leni finds in discovering who she is, how she wants to live … and having to separate from her parents in what are incredibly difficult times.
I felt you did a great job of balancing the coming-of-age tale with a very real and complicated family situation of mental illness and domestic violence, and veterans coming home after the war. There are just so many issues layered within this story.
That’s one of the reasons that I came to the setting in the ’70s, because the world felt as turbulent and unsettled and dangerous then as I think it does now. And I think that these issues — domestic violence, why women stay, mental illness, PTSD, and just teenage adolescence and coming of age — are still at the center of really important conversations that need to be going on.
One thread in the book that at first raised questions for me was the correlation between veteran PTSD and domestic violence. I felt it might be unfair to portray PTSD in that way, as there are countless people in recovery from severe trauma who would never harm a loved one. But the statistics are there: in 2016, Dr. Casey Taft of the Department of Veterans Affairs stated, “Vets with PTSD are three times more likely to be violent.” In examining the issue more closely, I read stories from wives who’ve stayed to care for their husbands, even at great personal risk to themselves, for numerous reasons. Beyond the complex web of abuser-victim relationships, there are other factors: a sense of duty to their country, memories of their partners before the trauma, fear of death, financial security, and more. It’s such a complicated issue. So as an author, were there any extra steps you felt you needed to take in order to ensure that you got the full picture regarding veterans, PTSD, and domestic violence, in order to portray the story of this family most truthfully?
Well, you know, that’s always sort of the question. It’s more difficult, I think, when you’re dealing with an issue that is not only this complex, but that touches so many people’s lives … So many people have been raised in dangerous situations, whether due to PTSD or not. And I do think that we, as a society, as a nation, have not cared for our veterans the way we need to, the way we promised them we would. So I think that’s important. And yes, it was a tightrope on causality … What I ended up doing was not really telling you whether he had been violent before the war or not, but certainly hinting at his controlling behavior and the kind of man he was before Vietnam. So I think that the reader gets to decide with this character, in this instance, what they believe about the connection between PTSD and violence.
Leni’s parents described their relationship as being “like heroin,” equal parts addictive and destructive. What effects can that toxic attachment between parents have on a child?
It was harder to portray Cora than Ernt. I think that all of us have a difficult time understanding why women choose to stay in these relationships. But the truth is that, overwhelmingly, they do. And so I tried to find a way to create a character that was believable. There’s that line in the book — the one you’re talking about — where they compare their love to heroin, and Leni thinks, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” It’s a drug that will kill you. Which tells you — tells the reader — that Ernt and Cora are aware of the danger. What they had called “love” has turned into something dangerous … Cora makes the comparison to cancer, which is purely justification. That’s her saying she’s got an illness — but it’s very different from cancer in terms of the risk that they’re taking and the risk that she’s passing along to her daughter. But I sort of believe that had Leni never been in acute physical danger, Cora probably would have stayed, that she was, in her way, as damaged as he was.
The sensitivity with which you approach each character from all angles is striking. It’s so easy to paint these situations in black and white — you know, “Why doesn’t she leave?”
It’s interesting that it’s coming out at the same time as #MeToo and #TimesUp and all of these questions about women and violence … I think that it’s an interesting sort of offshoot of that conversation.
Yes. That actually propels me into the next question: Self-sacrifice can be seen as a virtue for mothers, and for women in general. But in Cora’s case, her “self-sacrifice” — as she understands it — puts Leni at risk. Her silence puts her daughter at risk. So to free others, we sort of have to free ourselves. Do you feel that this particular lesson applies to other problems that women face today, beyond domestic violence and physical abuse?
That’s an interesting question … I do think that women in general have to constantly fight to be on a level playing field. Because I think a lot of us, especially mothers, have this “self-sacrifice, put everyone else first, try to keep things on an even keel” thing as a part of our societal role. And I think it is difficult to put ourselves first … I do find it interesting that we’re having a lot of conversations about women and violence right now, but domestic violence doesn’t seem to be a part of that conversation. And as I suggest in the book, it’s a difficult topic, because it’s hard for other people to “save” you. But we need — as a society, legally — a way to protect women in these situations.
Things have changed somewhat since the ’70s in terms of women taking legal action against abusive partners, but I feel that women are still at a disadvantage … You have a law background, so do you feel that there are additional changes that need to be made?
Because this book was set in the ’70s, I didn’t do a ton of research in terms of what’s going on with the battered woman defense right now. The last time I looked at it, you know, yes, it exists, but it doesn’t work a lot of the time. What we’re using for standards — it’s too difficult, it really is, because I think a normal person, watching these situations from afar, would usually say, “Why didn’t she just leave?” The psychology of staying is so complex. And female behavior often gets judged by a different standard.
What struck me most deeply, I think, is that the Allbrights are not some fantastical, made-up family — they are fictional participants in an unfortunately all-too-common reality of undiagnosed mental illness, domestic violence, and more. So for readers who have survived, or are surviving, circumstances similar to Leni’s, what message do you hope comes through from your book?
I would want to remind people that there is always hope and there is always change, and you can always have a different future than the past or the present you’re living in … Believe in that, and do your best to make it happen. I hope, as a society, that we focus on domestic violence and the protection of women and children — especially in remote and outlying areas, where they don’t have access to any of the social services that could help them.
Is there anything that you hope male-identified readers in particular will take away from this story?
Oh! That’s an interesting question. You know, I guess what we all want is for men and women to understand each other better, work harder to keep lines of communication and honesty open. I obviously couldn’t have known, when I started this book a couple of years ago, how timely it was going to be, and how much it has to say about what’s going on in our world right now.
The title is reference to “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” by Robert Service. Do you feel that everyone has some version of that “Great Alone” within them on some level? And if so, what do you think is the key to finding oneself in it?
You know, I grew up with my dad reciting Robert Service to us around the campfire when we were out in the middle of nowhere. And “the Great Alone” is just one of those phrases that really sticks with you … It has sort of been in my subconscious my whole life … As you go up to Alaska, you see these magnificent vistas … You see it in the summer and you go, “This is just the most gorgeous place on the planet!” And then you see it in the winter and you think, “I don’t believe I could survive here…”
When it comes down to it, in a fight for survival against the environment, your landscape, and the world of your own family, you know it all comes down to each person’s individual spirit, and what they have inside of them, and how much they’re willing to risk and do to survive … Ultimately, that is “the Great Alone.”
RJ Newell is a writer and multidisciplinary performing artist from Wasilla, Alaska. She is a fellow of the 2017 Los Angeles Review of Books Publishing Workshop at USC, Antioch University, and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.