The Great Alone


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The novel doesn't spend a lot of time on back-story but gives you enough to understand.  Cora was from a good family in Seattle.  Ernt grew up on a ranch in Montana.  I don't recall how or why she fell for Ernt but they got pregnant and married young.  Then Ernt was a POW in Viet Nam which caused PTSD resulting in violent outbursts and abusive behavior.  Cora's parents feel Ernt isolated Cora from her family and friends (ePg. 18) but it is unclear if that happened before or after the PTSD - nor does the when matter.  Regardless, Cora's parents help her whenever she asks (ePg. 19), displaying an enormous capacity for hope and forgiveness.

The majority of the novel is set on the Kenai peninsula, near Homer, Alaska.  The time period is mostly in the 1970s but does move forward into the 80's and, for the wrap-up, beyond.

The novel centers around a sensitive subject of spousal abuse, often portraying it from the abused's point of view regarding how they rationalize it (ePg. 127 & 128), such as when Leni (the daughter) thinks about "how it felt to live with a dad who scared you sometimes and a mother who loved him too much and made him prove how much he loved her in dangerous ways." (ePg. 69) revealing that she thinks her mom intentionally does things to draw her dad's ire.

The story is told in a pleasant, narrative fashion.  There were several spots where I felt like the author repeated herself in a fashion not for emphasis but more along the lines of she'd forgotten she'd already said that before or forgotten she used a phrase.  Like on page 299 when she says, "Sometimes you had to go backward in order to go forward."  I felt like I'd just read that somewhere else.  I know, as an author, I have had thoughts or ideas that I really like and want to work into a novel.  I could see how it could get in there twice - but it should've been caught in editing.  Or put some addition around it as in, Like my momma said, "Sometimes you had to go..."  (Or maybe it wasn't in their twice...as it turns out, the phrase also occurs in Dragonfly, which was the book we read prior to this one.)  It also happens with the description of akutaq - first on LP pg. 384 and then on LP pg. 551.  The first time it should be explained to the reader, but the second time it just seems insulting - like the reader isn't smart enough to remember that they learned what this was just 167 pages ago.

I was not initially excited about reading this novel, but by Ch. 20 I just wanted nothing but uninterrupted reading time.  I read both the eBook and the Large Print version - thus the varying page references.

On a scale of 1 - 5 (5 being a lot of examples/instances):

Sex:  2

Religion: 2

Gruesome:  4

Suspense:  2

Morality:  4

Traditional:  3

Sex - reference to a woman not wearing a bra. (ePg. 23)  Parents seemingly unaware that their teenager is at home such that she has to cover her ears with a pillow. (ePg. 70) "...she cranked up the radio as loud as it would go, but it wasn't enough to drown out the reunion in the bedroom." (ePg. 175)  Minor scene Ch. 19.

Religion - While trying to "find herself", Cora "tried EST and the human potential movement, spiritual training, Unitarianism.  Even Buddhism." (ePg. 4)  At a funeral Leni reflects that she doesn't know much about organized religion (ePg 116) and contemplates Heaven vs. what her parents believe in. (ePg. 118)  "Leni closed her eyes and prayed to the God she had never been taught about." (ePg. 147)  Ernt never takes the Lord's name fully in vain - it is written as "g-damn" in several places. (ePg. 194)  A bumper sticker reads, "WARNING: IN CASE OF RAPTURE, THIS CAR WILL BE UNMANNED." (ePg. 197)

Gruesome - There is a reference to a dog collar in a tree indicating an eagle snatched up a small dog (ePg. 43), similar to what happened in "The Proposal" movie with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds.  Spousal abuse. (ePg. 123)  Blood and vomit. (Ch. 21, ePg. 295) 
“He’s dead,” Leni said. Not that there was much doubt. The gun Mama had chosen could kill a bull moose. Leni realized she was kneeling in a pool of gore. Bits of bone and cartilage looked like maggots in the blood." (Ch. 24, ePg. 327)

Suspense - enough to keep me reading but not at the edge of my seat

Morality - people look out for one another
 

Traditional - some rough language (ePg. 29, 41) Spousal abuse. (ePg. 123)  "Alaska was full of fringe-ists.  People who believed in weirdo things and prayed to exclusionary Gods and filled their basements with equal measures of guns and Bibles." (ePg. 197)

I'd seen an acronym a few times and finally figured it out before it was finally spelled out for the reader: TSHTF = the shit hits the fan.

After Cora drove the van off the road I thought she'd go home with Mr. Walker and they'd live happily ever after but then I noticed I was only 35% done with the book so I knew it wouldn't be that easy.  This book could be a study in rising action for a middle school ELA class.

Discussion Questions

Why does the author dedicate the book to only the women in her family?  Who was stronger - Cora or Matthew?

The book opens with a quote from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, "Nature never deceives us; it is always we who deceive ourselves."  Do you agree with this quote?  What does it mean to you?

Leni went to five schools in four years (ePg. 4)  How many schools did you go to?

On her way to school Leni saw people waiting to buy gas for $0.55/gal. and upset because it was a high price.  What outlandish price do you remember for gas?

Cora and Leni moved with Ernt to Alaska "because that was what love was".  (ePg. 11)  Is that love - caring for Ernt's needs?  When do Leni's need for stability get met?  Will this set a pattern for Leni's life?  How can she avoid following the example she was raised with?

When the book opens Leni is 13 and Cora is 30 so Cora had Leni at 17.  
Does Cora's young age at her wedding explain why she stays with Ernt? (ePg. 13)

Compare and contrast "The Great Alone" with "Where the Crawdads Sing".

After Mrs. Walker fell through the ice, Cora touched Tom's arm in comfort.  (ePg. 118)  
Was it intentional or unaware?  Later she says, "He was agitated all day.  
I shouldn't have talked to Tom." (epg. 124)  So why did she?

Many people went to Alaska and became different people - Dieter Manse used to be a Pan Am pilot, Large Marge used to be a "big-city prosecutor and now took showers at the Laundromat and sold gum, and Natalie had gone from teaching economics at a university to captaining her own fishing boat.  Alaska was full of unexpected people -- like the woman who lived in a broken-down school bus at Anchor Point and read palms.  Rumor had it that she used to be...in New York City." (ePg. 133)  What would your Alaska life be?

Leni realized, "They were trapped, by environment and finances, but mostly by the sick, twisted love that bound her parents together.  Mama would never leave Dad.  It didn't matter that she'd gone so far as to take a backpack and run to the bus and drive away.  She would come back, always, because she loved him.  Or she needed him.  Or she was afraid of him.  Who knew, really?" (ePg. 158)  Does this paint an accurate picture of domestic abuse?  Does it help the reader understand what they haven't experienced?

What did you think Ernt had done when he left before dawn with the axe?  (ePg. 187)  
When Leni was surprised by what she saw on the street when she arrived at Salmon Days, 
what did you think she'd seen? (ePg. 188)

Ernt never took the Lord's name in vain, instead he said "g-damn". (ePg. 194)  Do you think he really would've spoken like that or was that something the author believes in?

Did you think Leni would ever see Mattie return from Fairbanks?

In Ch. 22, Leni was not surprised about the way things resolved.  Were you?  Why didn't she press charges? (ePg. 311)  She thought about leaving, but not until Matthew was better.  (ePg. 312)  Should she have left immediately?  

It seemed obvious Ernt would kill someone.  Who did you think it would be?  
Why?  How (murder, rage-accident)?

In Ch. 24 (ePg. 333) the narrator reflects that any small course correction might have changed the outcome.  What course corrections would you have liked to have seen?  When Mama told Leni she thought she understood that they couldn't stay in Alaska (ePg. 338) - had you understood that?  Did you agree that they had to leave or did you see a way for them to stay?

Did you think Leni's love would wake, or heal, Matthew?

Leni supposes eventually every child has a rift with their parents then eventually forgives them and understands them.  Do you agree that every child goes through this?  (LP pg. 583)


Theme Ideas

Give lavender sachets to your guests, like Cora and Leni made when they lived in the commune in Oregon. (ePg. 5)

Have coffee table books: Alaskan scenery, copies of "Mother Earth News magazine" recommended by Large Marge (ePg. 41), or Robert Service poems.  

Encourage your guests to dress in '70's attire, for example, "low-waisted bell-bottom jeans and lace-edged tank top". (ePg. 23)  Or like hippies, "recognizable by their backpacks, tie-dyed shirts, and sandals." (ePg. 25)  Or make tie-dyed t-shirts.

Build a bonfire like the Allbrights did after a long day of cleaning out the cabin. (ePg. 36)  Or like they did at the Harlan compound. (ePg. 190)

Play Yahtzee like Cora and Leni did while waiting for Ernt to come home after running off. (ePg. 139)
Or play Crazy Eights like when Cora came home from the hospital. (ePg. 160)

Food ideas:

Serve Coke from a bottle like Ernt drank when he was planning the route to Alaska. (ePg. 20)

On the road to Alaska, "They roasted hot dogs for dinner and made s'mores for dessert." (ePg. 21)

When the Allbrights got to Homer, before they crossed the ferry, they ate Dungeness crab dunked in melted butter with "fries and French bread". (ePg. 24)

Serve tuna fish sandwiches and (warm) Coca-Cola like the they ate on the beach on their second night at the cabin.  Also serve mussels and butter clams. (ePg. 36)

Serve salmon, a staple of Alaskan diets. 
Serve cornbread like Mama took to the community gathering at the Walker's. (ePg. 64)
Serve "moose burgers" with cheese, like at the Walker's. (ePg. 67)

Serve a "small plate of Spam alongside an enamel bowl of ... brown-sugar baked beans. (ePg. 139)

At the Salmon Days celebration Leni expected to see "grilling moose burgers and reindeer sausage and fresh clams...beers.  ... halibut sandwiches, platters of Dungeness crab, buckets of steamed clams, vats of baked beans." (ePg. 188)

Serve a barbeque dinner like they ate at the Harlan compound. (ePg. 190)

Serve "fresh- caught salmon, drizzled with homemade herb butter; green beans fried in preserved moose fat; a salad of freshly picked lettuce and tomatoes". (Ch. 22, ePg. 313)

Serve sausage, biscuits and gravy like the breakfast Cora served when she warned Leni about Mattie. (LP pg. 314)

"Leni wondered if one person could ever really save another, or if it was the kind of thing you had to do for yourself." (Ch. 23, ePg. 323) What do you think?

For Leni's high school graduation party they had carrot cake and "strawberry akutaq, a kind of ice cream made from snow and Crisco and fruit". (LP pg. 384)  For Leni's college graduation party they had blueberry akutaq and cupcakes in the park. (LP pg. 551)

 

Playlist:

  • "Piece of my Heart" like Cora used to dance to while making dinner, before the war (ePg. 5)
  • "Hooked on a Feeling" (when Leni woke up in the beginning of Ch. 2)
  • "Midnight at the Oasis" (in the car on the way to visit Cora's parents before going to Alaska) (ePg. 15)
  • "I Feel the earth move..." by Carole King (in the car to visit Cora's parents) (ePg. 15)
  • "Rocky Mountain High, Colorado..." like they sang at the community gathering at the Walker's (ePg. 68)
  • "Come On Get Happy" like Leni hummed when her parents were making "happy" (ePg. 70)
  • "Bad. Bad Leroy Brown" like when they went to find Ernt in the saloon after the wolf attack (ePg. 145)
  • Play Bee Gees disco music like was playing when Leni came home from hunting. (ePg. 172)
  • "Lay Down Sally" like the band at Salmon Days played (ePg. 190)
  • "Lyin' Eyes" like the day Ernt drove Leni to school and saw the Adventure Ranch sign. (LP pg. 316)
  • "Piece of My Heart" by Janis Joplin like when Large Marge picked Leni up in Ch. 30 (ePg. 416)

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