The Wilderness Within: Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone

Life has been so busy lately! Work has been a bit in the way of my reading, which means I’ve been only reading a bit before bed. Anyway, I managed to finish The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah last week. I had never read anything by her before —or anything written after 1970 in a long while, for that matter—, but I really want to check The Nightingale out now.

How to best describe The Great Alone? This book is as tragic as it is hopeful. I read it because it’s about Alaska, a place that I’ve been dying to visit for two years or so. And the novel doesn’t disappoint in describing the hardships and wilderness of the Alaskan territoire. Nevertheless, the main focus of the novel is the seemingly impossible strengh and courage that people are capable of when confronted by wilderness and danger, and when motivated by love.

The plot of this novel could definitely be a thriller if it was narrated by Stephen King: an unstable father who takes his family to a remote location to “start over” and begins to slowly lose his mind. The focus of the novel is not, however, the unstable dad, but the mother and daughter who travel with him and who are extremely well-developed characters. Leni, the 13-year-old daughter, is one of the few teenagers in contemporary literature that didn’t sound fake or exasperating to me, but relatable and realistic.

Leni is dragged by her parents to a small settlement near Homer, Alaska. The many problems that her family has been going through since her dad came back from Vietnam—his alcoholism, bad temper and unemployement— seem to be maximised by the isolation, the lack of light and the hardships of the winter, a season that seems to last forever and to engulf everything in darkness in Alaska. Leni’s mother is also an unstable figure in the beginning, emotionally dependent of her husband. How the wilderness of the Alaskan landscape can break the spirits of some and make others find their own inner wilderness was, for me, the main theme of the novel. Both Leni and her mother learn to fend for themselves and each other, they come to realise their own strenght… in the most melodramatic way possible.

“Alaska isn’t about who you were when you headed this way. It’s about who you become.” 

Kristin Hannah, The Great Alone

Although Hannah’s novel dwells on many tragic themes: domestic violence, substance abuse, political extremism, death and loss, the strong and diverse portray of the female characters in the novel make a good counterpoint to the many catastrophes that occur along the plot. I would say this portray of women, strong women who struggle, adventure, live and love fiercely, is the most accomplished aspect of the novel. Another thing I enjoyed a lot—though it gave me the chills many times— was the beautiful yet never romanticised depiction of the Alaskan landscape and seasons.

However, I did not like the last part of the novel as much. The last hundred pages were just too melodramatic for me, many things happened and the style of the narrative was inconsistent at times. I think the last bits of the novel are too focused on making things happen to the characters, so a lot of “minor” tragedies allign around the main event of the ending, and it is just too much. Whatever greatness was accomplished in character developement throughout the first three quarters of the books just collapses in the last quarter. In fact, there were some bits of descriptive dialogue that seemed taken out of a soap opera.

Despite that, The Great Alone is a very enjoyable book, with its descriptions of the seventies fashion and haircuts, its wonderful rendering of Alaska and a sharp critic of right-wing extremism in the forgotten areas of the United States. It was a pleasure to come home to it every night (why is it so nice to read of cold nights and family tragedies from one’s own cosy bed?). I’m very much looking forward to read The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, and to visit Alaska… in the summer.

Have you read The Great Alone? If so, I would love to hear what you thought of it! I’m currently reading One Day in December by Josie Silver and finding it delightfully funny.

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Books That Inspired Me to Travel

Throughout my life, and perhaps the more so because I’m a literature undergrad, I have read many kinds of books. And many of those books have changed me and shaped the ways in which I interact with the world.

Of all those ways in which books have changed me, this post is dedicated to those books that inspired me to travel, those which gave me itchy feet and to which I owe this never-ending desire to go to “faraway lands”, to get lost in big cities and found in quiet mountain tops or forgotten little towns. Some of these books just describe places in such a vivid way that I was compelled to visit them, but most are not about destinations about but journeys themselves.


Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

Whitman’s poetry is hope, energy, youth. When I first read Leaves of Grass I started to understand things I had only guessed before about my place in the world. “Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you. /You must travel it by yourself. /It is not far. It is within reach. /Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know. / Perhaps it is everywhere – on water and land.”

To actually feel part of the world wherever I am, however distant it may seem, has been a big breakthrough for me: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” I used to set too much store on destinations and possessions, to think that when I had this or when I were somewhere else I would be happy, but that was not only untrue, but also an unsustainable way of living. Now I’d rather be here and think of traveling in a broader sense, I want to be here as much as possible and when I’m somewhere else I want to be there with all my heart.


Villette, Charlotte Brontë

Though not Charlotte’s most famous novel, Villette is perhaps my favourite. A young woman with no money or family who embarks to Europe in search of a better life. She arrives in a little town in Belgium only to realise that the journey is not yet over. When she’s in she ship, uncertain of where she’s going but fully embracing her own adventure, she says: “So peril, loneliness, an uncertain future, are not oppressive evils, so long as the frame is healthy and the faculties are employed; so long especially, as Liberty lends us her wings, and Hope guides us by her star. And this quote has accompanied me since. Somehow that’s what traveling is about for me, the excitement of adventure, the fear and uncertainty that freedom can arouse, and ultimately the hopes for better things to come, and to each travel to show us things of ourselves we didn’t know before.


Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

This is a recent read for me (no, I haven’t watched the movie yet), and I must say I was completely appalled and excited by the adventures of Chris McCandless (aka Alexander Supertramp) that Krakauer narrates. When talking about this book I found that many people think the author glorifies the stupidity of this young man who went to live by himself in the Alaskan wilderness. I really don’t think he does. I actually think Krakauer does an amazing job in setting apart his opinions from the facts, while also rendering a complex portrait of the 22-year-old. I don’t believe Chris McCandles was a hero, but I do believe he understood what he was up to and understood too the perils of modern society. If I learned something from this book, it was about self-reliance. This book made me so much more conscious of my dependance on material things as well of the implications of everything I do (from the food I eat to the clothes I wear), and I think we could all learn a bit from both Jon Krakauer, an amazing writer and adventurer, and Chris McCandless. I also can’t wait to travel to Alaska.

If you’re interested in self-reliance, I highly recommend you read Emerson’s text of the same name. It might change your life. Also, if you’re on Goodreads, I made a list of all the books that appear in Into the Wild, most of which McCandless read. So add me here, and the list is called “Into-the-wild”. 


A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

I’m a big fan of Hemingway (my favourite novel is definitely A Farewell to Arms) and so I had to read this memoir. Apart from it being the best memoir I’ve read, it is also one of the best books about Paris ever. I love this book because it combines my two passions: literature and travel writing. Hemingway’s descriptions of Paris are astounding, he describes the parties and the itineraries he followed when living there, all the alcohol and tobacco and all the artists he met there. He also tells some funny and heartbreaking anecdotes and talks of Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and James Joyce. When I read it I had already been to Paris, but the way in which he describes the cafés in the Latin Quartier, all the gardens and the boulangeries, just made me want to go again. From this book you’ll get a ton of places to see in Paris, including Shakespeare & Co., as well as some of the most interesting reflections on what it means to be a writer and what it takes to write.


On the Road, Jack Kerouac

Of course, I had to include this one, and you’ve probably read it already. Although Kerouac might not be my favourite beatnik, this book is special. I must confess I found it poorly written and boring at some points (and I don’t think I hate any fictional character more than I hate Dean Moriarty), but there’s some raw stuff in here that is so important for me, the love of experience for the sake of experience. The book is about a road trip, perhaps The Road Trip, across North America, and Kerouac was clearly not gonna let grammar interfere in his rendering of this experience. The book has many great moments of clarity that made me jump of excitement and recognition, and I think any fellow traveler, or any young person really, will feel the same.

I’ll just leave some cool quotes here:

  • “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
  • “… the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
  • “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”


The Call of the Wild, Jack London

This is one of the books mentioned in Into the Wild. It is about a house dog from California that is sold to be a sleigh dog in Alaska and how this drastic change forces him to go back to his nature. What I like about this book is that it does not idealize nature as something good, but it represents it with all its violence, as a merciless force, and yet a majestic one. This book made me think so much about our relationship to nature and it made me change the ways in which I interact with it, so if you’re a nature lover, I recommend this book.

Have you read any of these?

If so, what did you think of them? I’d love to hear from you on the comments.

Happy reading!