“Featuring a rich cast of characters and elevated by the riveting portrayal of homesteading in Alaska in the 1970s, this is a compassionate story of a family.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
You know when you are reading a book and you come across a moment you want to share with someone because it moves you so much? This story of survival in the Alaskan wilderness has many such beautiful, touching moments. I love The nightingale by Kristin Hannah; it is one of my favourite books, and there too, it was the emotions the characters stirred in me that I recall most of all. This one is the same.
When we meet 13 yo Leni in the year 1974, she is already aware that she is probably the adult in her family of three and has molded herself to fulfill that role. Her parents share a love that is very complex in Leni’s eyes. Her mother Cora, who defied everyone to marry Ernt Allbright when she was just a teenager, is always telling Leni that her father loves them and that he was a happier, fun loving person before the Vietnam war in which he was taken prisoner and tortured. Leni wants to believe her mother when she says all they need to do is be there for her father and love him and he will become what he was before. Then she won’t have to tiptoe around him, she won’t have to wake up to the sounds of his screaming after nightmares, she won’t have to face his anger. And she may get to stay in one place long enough to make friends.
But the present reality is that they are moving,and to a place that literally is the end of the world, Alaska. Somewhat enthused by the possibility of a fresh start and a happier life, they make their way to the beautiful but very much isolated Kenai peninsula which is far, far away from civilization and totally cut off at times from everyone. Leni adapts, to no electricity, no running water, no candy, a one room school where there are only 4 kids, endless chores at the family homestead and to having no friends. The community of people who have made this part of the world their home are close knit and always ready to help and cooperate and the woefully underprepared Allbrights are swiftly taken into the fold and get their greenhouse and animal pens up and learn life skills they need to survive. And it seems like their lives may improve.
But then winter arrives and brings with it eighteen hours of darkness and a brutal,biting cold which imprisons them indoors and triggers a downfall in Ernt’s mental state. What was not obvious to Leni in their earlier life cannot be hidden in the close confines here. Her father’s violence scares her. He grows increasingly suspicious and paranoid, thinking up various threats and ways to keep them away from everyone. And then she realizes that it isn’t the outside that they need protection from but the threat in their own home.
Told mostly from the POV of Leni through the years it spans, the book addresses PTSD of soldiers like Ernt and the issue of domestic abuse in a time before these were acknowledged or even named as such! Even though we know this now, it is very difficult to sympathize with Ernt who does not seem to even try to change himself and blames all his inadequacies on others.The choices that humans make of who to love, when to stay knowing they shouldn’t and keep hoping for something they recognize as hopeless are embodied in the life of Cora and Leni who share an amazing bond not just as mother and daughter but as friends who support each other always and are ‘ peas in a pod’.
Nature is almost one of the characters of this book. The brilliant colours, ragged landscape, thick snow, difficult terrain all play a role in every event of the lives of the characters, each of whom is wonderfully portrayed. Young love, devastating sorrow, uplifting friendship and camaraderie, sheer helplessness… everything is pervaded by and punctuated by the raging winds, howling wild animals and the landscape itself. Leni is the one who goes through the most changes and is the star so to speak of the book. Her spirit, love and resilience are tested in so many ways but at her core, she remains the nice person she was when we first met her. And that’s endearing.
I listened to the audiobook and the narrator was awesome, getting the nuances of each character very, very correctly. And so it was impossible not to tear up at some very poignant moments in the story.
This is a book where you want people to get what they hope for because they deserve to be happy. It’s a book that describes Alaska so wonderfully that you can just picture it every time you read and actually feel the changing weather and imagine yourself bundled up and on the reservation of the Allbrights with them.
This is definitely my new favourite book by Kristin Hannah and perhaps even overall.
Added 15th September 2020
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
This novel takes place in Alaska. It is the story of the Allbright family. Ernt Allbright has returned from Vietnam where he was held as a POW to his wife Cora and young daughter Lena. He is a very different man than the one that existed before the war. He is unstable and can’t hold a job for too long. When he finds out that a former fellow army buddy who died in the War has left him his property in Alaska he moves the family there, hoping for a new life. The property is in a very small town way up North, and the locals pitch in to help the Allbrights get ready to survive the Alaska winter.
When winter comes, the bad side of Ernt returns. He is physically abusive to his wife due to his jealousy and he quickly falls into a state where his abuse has alienated him from much of the community. The closest neighbor to the Allbrights are the Walker family consisting of Tom and Grace, their son Matthew and daughter Aleyska. Matthew attends school with Lena, and they quickly become very close to each other. When Grace Walker dies in an accident while Matthew can only hopelessly watch, Leni helps him through his grief and they become more than just friends. But Ernt is jealous of the Walkers wealth and position in the community and he cannot abide his daughters relationship with Matthew. This will be the turning point in the book and the rest of the story will all be a result of this situation.
I had some early problems with the book because of the extreme amount of abuse suffered by Cora Allbright at the hands of her husband, and because it starts early in the book and just continues to occur, I could not see how the author could maintain this constant pressure in the story without the reader finally saying enough and putting the book down. But she does and the book changes in a way that makes it a more comfortable read.
The way the Author describes the problems living in Alaska are terrific. You will feel the desperate aloneness of the Alaska winter and your heart will go out to Cora and Lena as they try to survive not only the elements of the State they live in, but how they try to survive the elements in their home. A tough story told very well. Recommended.
Added 18th March 2018