I rarely watch soap operas on a voluntary basis because they rely on over-the-top dramatics, dialogue, and acting, and there is only so much that I can take. This excessiveness can also be seen in books like the Twilight series. However, since novels allow extensive insight into the characters’ mindsets as they deal with the chaos thrown at them, they permit more depth than the average soap opera. Having soap-opera related devices in books is not bad as long as one uses them to serve the story well. An effective example of this is The Great Alone by Kristen Hannah.
The Great Alone focuses on the Albright family, particularly on the daughter Leni. In 1974, after the dad and former Vietnam Prisoner of War Ernt loses another job, he impulsively decides that the family should move up to Cognac, Alaska to live off the fat of the land in the nation’s last frontier. Leni hopes that the move will be the final one as she strides for a place to belong. At first, things are great as the sun is up until midnight, and the community full of colorful characters provides them with the resources needed to survive the oncoming winter. However, as winter and darkness approach, Ernt’s mental state deteriorates with frequent nightmares, and it tears the family apart. The danger outside of the cabin is nothing compared to one growing inside as Leni and her mother Cora realize that they are on their own, and they can only save themselves.
What makes the soap opera elements work in the novel is that danger is already present in 1970s Alaska. Hannah acknowledges the beauty and peril of Alaska constantly through rich and detailed descriptions as well as through the mouths of the locals. Anything can happen, like Geneva Walker – an Alaskan all her life – falling through thin ice and drowning. This deeply impacts Matthew – Geneva’s son – so much that he moves to Anchorage to live with his aunt. Up until that point, Matthew and Leni were becoming friends, and afterwards, they maintained their relationship through letters. This eventually led to them becoming lovers, a source of comfort for Leni.
Hannah also reminds readers of the events that occurred in the 1970s like plane hijackings, political unrest, and kidnapping of girls Leni’s age. Ernt continually reminds Leni that there is danger everywhere one looks because of those events. At first, this makes Leni be extra careful. However, she later realizes that the real peril is inside her home.
This leads into the book’s main topic: domestic abuse. Throughout the novel, Ernt becomes more dominant and threatening as winter prevails. He even tries to build a wall around the cabin to keep those who disagree with him out. Readers find out that Ernt suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at a time when it was not called that, yet this only occurs at the end of the novel. In fact, readers never find out what goes on in the nightmares that Ernt suffers from. This could have been better handled if readers knew, so this could show what kind of trauma he suffered during the war. This is not much of a problem since the 1970s were a time when nobody really knew what to do with PTSD-inflicted soldiers, so it makes sense that his family and friends would not understand what he went through. Even though people will not agree with Ernt’s actions, they can at least see somewhat where he is coming from.
In the meantime, Cora – Leni’s mother – claims that she loves him so much that she will never leave him, yet the truth is that she does not have a strong sense of self because she got pregnant and married at 16. The book also asserts that the law did not do much for battered women in the 1970s even if they fought back. In addition, Cora is afraid to leave Ernt because he may find and possibly kill her. This all hugely impacts Leni as she has to be the caretaker and deals with her parents’ toxic relationship. As a result, this allows readers to root for her as she tries to get away from all of that to live her own life with Matthew.
Julia Whelan narrates the audiobook. She has recorded the audiobook for Gone Girl and for novels written by Nora Roberts, and she has won awards for her narration of Educated. For a voiceover artist who has gotten accolades, her performance in this one was ok. She voices the female characters with enough differences among them. My personal favorite is Large Marge as Whelan performs her with a lot of sass and no nonsense. My problem was with her vocal performances of the male characters. A lot of them have a gruffness to their voices. This can work with characters like Ernt, but it doesn’t quite work with ones like Matthew, who can be sweet and adventurous as he deals with his own demons. I had a similar problem with the narration of Midnight at the Bright Idea Bookstore. Voicing different characters, especially of the opposite gender of the narrator, can be tough, but for someone who had received a lot of awards for her work, I expected more from Whelan.
The Great Alone by Kristen Hannah is a well-written book that takes readers on one heck of a rollercoaster ride. It incorporates soap opera elements efficiently as it permits characters’ complicated reactions to various overly dramatic events. However, this book is not for the faint-hearted. One must be prepared to take breaks while reading it and be patient, for it is absolutely worth it in the end.
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