48 pages 1 hour read

Kristin Hannah

The Great Alone

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide


Author Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, originally published in 2017, tells the story of Leni Allbright’s coming of age in Alaska. The narrative encompasses Leni’s arrival, departure, and eventual return as an adult to the small town of Kaneq. The novel begins when Leni is 13 and her father decides to move the family to Alaska. Ernt Allbright, a Vietnam veteran who suffers post-traumatic stress due to his capture and torture during the war, has received land from a deceased wartime friend. He thinks that this will allow him to leave his trauma behind. Since the war, Ernt has found it difficult to hold down a job. This, along with his erratic moods, has created difficulties between him and his wife, Cora. Madly in love with Ernt, Cora supports the move and even procures money from her estranged parents to do so.

Life in Alaska is more difficult than the Allbrights expected, but they find their place in the Kaneq community. Ernt finds a kindred soul in Mad Earl, father to the friend who gave Ernt land, and the Allbrights become close to his family. They also receive help from the general store owner, Large Marge. Leni herself discovers her first friendship with Matthew Walker, son of one of the oldest homesteading families in Kaneq. However, the cruel winter soon tests Leni’s friendship with Matthew when his mother, Geneva, dies.

The turn of the weather also brings with it a decline in Ernt’s mental health. His nightmares resume, and he begins drinking heavily and arguing with Cora. During one of his absences, in which he has gone to drink, wolves attack the Allbrights’ animals and kill all their livestock. Distraught from losing their already meager supplies, Cora and Leni confide in Tom and Large Marge, their neighbors. Tom’s upbraiding of Ernt results in Ernt’s violence towards Cora back at the cabin. After she witnesses her father’s violence, Leni insists her mother leave him. As mother and daughter take to the road, they suffer a car accident, and Leni saves her mother by going for help. After her release from the hospital, Cora returns to Ernt, and Leni loses hope that her mother will leave him. Large Marge and Tom intervene, forcing Ernt to leave town to work at the pipeline during the winter.

Two years pass in which Cora and Leni continue making themselves at home in Alaska despite their rocky beginning. Ernt’s long absences give both a tenuous peace that shatters once he loses his job and returns home early. Kaneq has changed during the years, and Ernt reacts with hostility at Tom’s desire to make the town friendlier to tourists. He vandalizes the saloon and grows even more erratic. After Mad Earl’s death, Ernt’s behavior leads to his banishment from Mad Earl’s property. Matthew has returned to Kaneq during this tumultuous period. He and Leni rekindle their friendship, deepening it into romance despite the tension between Ernt and Tom. Once Cora finds out that Leni intends to study with Matthew at the university in Anchorage, she plans for Leni to go.

Ernt grows more volatile after Mad Earl’s family rejects him. He decides to construct a wall under the delusion of keeping Leni and Cora safe. When Cora decides to push Leni to escape, Leni calls for help, but Ernt hears her. He takes out his rage on Cora, but Matthew stops him. Cora asks Matthew to flee with Leni and hide from Ernt while she goes to the police. Honoring Cora’s wishes, Matthew takes Leni into the wilderness. When Leni tries to return to her mother, she slips on the terrain, and Matthew falls after her.

Although others eventually rescue Leni and Matthew, Matthew suffers severe consequences and falls into a coma. Guild-ridden and heartbroken, Leni returns home to find her father still there because her mother failed to press charges against him. Leni refuses to accept her father’s empty apologies, and the return of his temper does not surprise her. Matthew improves incrementally but sustains serious brain damage. During this time, Leni finds out that she is pregnant and tells Ernt, who lashes out. Cora, who has taken Ernt’s violence, refuses to see Leni as his victim. She shoots him twice, killing him. Cora and Leni hide Ernt’s body in the wilderness and ask for Large Marge’s help. Sympathetic, Large Marge directs them to leave evidence of a struggle and flee the state. According to her plan, everyone will think Ernt killed them. Large Marge arranges for Cora and Leni to fly to Seattle. Although Matthew is still in the rehabilitation facility, Leni has no choice but to leave for all their sakes.

Back in Seattle, Cora reaches out to her parents, who take her and Leni in. Patching up their estrangement, Cora’s lawyer father gives them fake documents to obtain new identities. Leni enrolls in college and gets a job. With her mother at her side, she gives birth to a boy she names after Matthew. Years later, Cora receives a cancer diagnosis. Her final wish is that Leni return to Alaska. To this end, Cora hands Leni an official confession that she is to turn into the police. Cora tells Leni to go scatter her ashes in their bay.

Unable to deny her mother and herself, Leni returns with her mother’s confession. While turning it in, she accidentally incriminates herself. The authorities arrest her, but Large Marge and Tom’s intervention sets her free. Leni sees Matthew and introduces him to their son. Matthew has been walking a long road to recovery, and the knowledge that he has a son moves him. Leni mentions her desire for them to be a family. The community comes together to memorialize Cora, and Leni carries out her mother’s last wish. The novel ends with an article that Leni writes on Alaska, recognizing that she belongs there.

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