As Winter slowly but surely approaches the Northern Hemisphere, I felt that a book on Alaska would help me get into the mood of all things cold and frosty. As an Australian, it is hard to imagine the cold that is experienced in places like Alaska and Northern Sweden and Finland. I did not see snow until I was 20 and I had no clue what to expect. I still remember realising that snow can be wet, soft, hard, and slippery. I’m sure to anyone born where it is cold enough to snow it might seem strange that I had to learn these things as an adult, but it is true. The cold was enemy where I grew up. Well, the heat was too, but we knew how to deal with that. Cold on the other hand was a different story. My parents had no interest in going anywhere cold. Why do you need snow when you have beaches and endless golden sun? The truth is that I am not a winter person. I hate the cold. If I never had to see winter again I would not worry. I often dream about moving somewhere close to the equator and just staying there, nice and warm all year round.
Whilst Alaska and Australia might seem like two opposites I found some similarities with the way people treat the land. In Australia, just like in Alaska, the landscape is harsh and unforgiving. There is no room for mistakes in such rough and sometimes remote places. In Alaska its the bears and wolves and the never-ending cold that will get you. In Australia it is the snakes and spiders and never-ending heat that can literally set the world around you on fire that will get you. I have noticed that when you grow up in a milder climate that doesn’t fall on one of these extremes, your appreciation and fear of nature can be somewhat subdued. And I say this because I grew up in a country where the nature demands respect and a healthy amount of fear. Compared to Switzerland, where generally speaking not much happens nature-wise, Alaska and Australia are hard-won places to call home. So even though the thought of a constant winter terrifies me (honestly as soon as it drops below 20 C, I feel like I will freeze to death), I felt that similar respect for the land and admired the type of resilience a place like that demands of its residents.
Kristin Hannah’s novel is not just about Alaska and the cold. It begins in 1974 when a Vietnam Vet and P.O.W. Ernt Allbright decides to move his family (wife Cora and daughter Leni), again, to Kaneq, Alaska after he inherited land from one of his fellow fallen Vietnam Vets. They move to a small shack pretty much in the middle of nowhere and meet some oddball residents of Kaneq like Large Marg, Tom Walker, and Mad Earl.
The story is set on the backdrop of the end of the Vietman war, the height of fears around Russia and the Iron curtain, and the general fear and mistrust that many Americans had in a changing new world. This is eloquently displayed through Ernt and Mad Earl, who through an unhealthy dose of paranoia and fear slowly destroy and push away the people they love. Ernt is also a domestic abuser and regularly beats his wife, Cora. She claims that the war changed Ernt and that his nightmares from his time as a prisoner of war are the reason for his violent outbursts. Ernt’s lack of social and mental support after the war highlights a clear problem that went unaddressed for many years and many wars. However, I do not know if it is fair to also put the total blame on the war. Cora and Leni try to leave, but almost die in the process. Large Marg and Tom Walker eventually banish Ernt to go work on a pipeline over the winter months, when his nightmares are more affected by the long dark cold days, but eventually Ernt loses the job. With the loss of his job, and his feeling of emasculation, Ernt eventually goes back to hitting his wife and drinking too much.
Hidden in this harsh cold land is also the tragic love story of Leni and Matthew Walker (Tom’s son). There love blossoms out of being school friends and in the end Matthew almost dies trying to save Leni’s life. The ending is bitter sweet and although it does not end the way you would hope, the book is still uplifting and shows that above all else, humans are pretty resilient creatures.
This was my first novel by Kristin Hannah and I have thoroughly enjoyed her writing style. It has also given me the idea that I might need to visit Alaska one day. Although, maybe in the summer time.
Have you read any other books by Hannah? If so, what should I read next? As always, share the reading love.