The Great Alone

Author: 
Hannah, Kristin

Ernt Allbright, a former POW, comes home from the Vietnam war a changed and volatile man.

When he loses yet another job, he makes an impulsive decision: he will move his family north, to Alaska, where they will live off the grid in America’s last true frontier.

Thirteen-year-old Leni, a girl coming of age in a tumultuous time, caught in the riptide of her parents’ passionate, stormy relationship, dares to hope that a new land will lead to a better future for her family.

She is desperate for a place to belong. Her mother, Cora, will do anything and go anywhere for the man she loves, even if means following him into the unknown.

At first, Alaska seems to be the answer to their prayers.

In a wild, remote corner of the state, they find a fiercely independent community of strong men and even stronger women. The long, sunlit days and the generosity of the locals make up for the Allbrights’ lack of preparation and dwindling resources.

But as winter approaches and darkness descends on Alaska, Ernt’s fragile mental state deteriorates and the family begins to fracture.

Soon the perils outside pale in comparison to threats from within. In their small cabin, covered in snow, blanketed in eighteen hours of night, Leni and her mother learn the terrible truth: they are on their own. In the wild, there is no one to save them but themselves. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. Before reading the book, what was your perception of life in Alaska? What surprised you?

2. The wild, spectacular beauty of Alaska. It was otherworldly somehow, magical in its vast expanse, an incomparable landscape of soaring glacier-filled white mountains that ran the length of the horizon, knife-tip points pressed high into a cloudless, cornflower blue sky." (22) The author describes the Alaskan landscape with such electric language—what passages did you find the most moving? Did they help you visualize the place or inspire you? Did you find the landscape to be in contrast to the violence of the story? Or do you think it complemented the breathtaking feeling of young love?

3. What aspects of the lifestyle would you find the most challenging in the wild? How would you handle the isolation, the interdependence among neighbors, the climate? Would you have what it takes to survive?

4. "Up here, there’s no one to tell you what to do or how to do it. We each survive our own way. If you’re tough enough, it’s heaven on earth." (39) What drives the settlers in The Great Alone to Alaska? They’re not all desperate people in desperate need of a fresh start like the Allbrights, but what could be attractive about this unique way of life for some? What brings Large Marge there? The Walker family? Do you think most are hunting for something—or hiding?

5. In The Great Alone, we’re transported by the author back to America in the early seventies with plot elements such as the gas shortage, shocking news headlines, counter-cultural ideas, and of course, the wardrobe choices. If you were present for these years, what was it like to see snapshots of it in the story? Did it match up with your memories, or color the story for you? What would you add?

6. Did you find Cora’s actions and liberated" mind-set to be in conflict? When we first meet Cora she’s venting about discriminatory credit practices at the bank while sipping from a feminist-messaged coffee cup, but we soon discover she’s at a tense crossroads in her personal life. What do you think holds her back?

7. Leni sees the complexity of her parents’ relationship when in such close quarters with them in the cabin—the rawness of their lives together. Did you think it was going to be the weather or the violence that killed them first?

8. Discuss the forms of love within this book—crazy and romantic love, neighborly love and compassion, love for the natural world, and a mother’s love. What else would you add?

9. 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." (118) If you have faced the loss of a loved one, did you find this quote to have special resonance for you? What did the author get right about this sentiment? How else would you describe a mother’s influence? Does Cora serve such a role for Leni—why and why not? Did your ideas change throughout the book?

10. Leni and Matthew compare their friendship with Sam and Frodo’s from The Lord of the Rings, but what other couples from literature do you think they’d fit neatly into the roles of ?

11. This is dangerous, she thought, but she couldn’t make herself care. All she could think about now was Matthew, and how it had felt when he kissed her, and how much she wanted to kiss him again." (233) Do you recall your own days of young love and that rush of feeling? Do you think the experience is universal?

12. How did the building of Ernt’s wall affect you as a reader? Did you find that the construction heightened the suspense—or was it suffocating?

13. Did you see Cora’s explosive act of protection coming? What did it feel like to read that scene? As a parent, do you think you’d be capable of the same act, or be able to write such a confessional letter?

14. Did you hold Leni responsible in your mind for any of Matthew’s misfortune? Why or why not? How does Leni show her devotion in the end? Did you anticipate the kind of future that is set in motion for them at the close of the book?

15. At the end of the story, Leni ends up back in Alaska—do you think there’s an ultimate place where people belong? How would you know if you got there?
(Questions issued by the publishers.)