Author: Kristin Hannah
Performed by Julia Whelan
Released: February 2018 by Macmillan Digital Audio
Category: Family Drama, Historical, Fiction, Romance, Book Review
Unpredictable. Unforgiving. Untamed.
For a family in crisis, the ultimate test of survival.
Ernt Allbright, a former POW, comes home from the Vietnam war a changed and volatile man. When he loses yet another job, he makes an impulsive decision: he will move his family north, to Alaska, where they will live off the grid in America’s last true frontier.
Leni Allbright is the new kid in school….again. Her father, Ernt, has trouble holding down a job for any length of time since returning from the Vietnam war and so they haven’t stayed in one place very long. His experience as a POW unleashed a darkness in him that had his wife, Cora, and Leni tiptoeing around him, trying to keep him on an even keel. He’s not the man he was before the war, the nightmares and flashbacks leave him on edge, jittery and prone to violent outbursts.
When Ernt receives a letter from Earl Harlan telling him of the land with a cabin in Alaska left to him by Earl’s son, Ernt believes this will be the answer to all their troubles. He’ll be able to breathe, there will be no pressure and they can live as they choose, without the constant threat of danger in these uncertain times.
“I need this, Cora. I need a place where I can breathe again. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to crawl out of my skin. Up there, the flashbacks and shit will stop, I know it. We need this. We can go back to the way things were before ‘Nam screwed me up.”
Thirteen year old Leni hopes this will be a new beginning and give her family a better future. Cora will do anything for the man she loves, she just wants him to be happy.
Arriving on their inherited land in Alaska is a rude awakening. The cabin is little more than a run down shack with no amenities whatsoever. Local people are welcoming, and the small community on the Kenai peninsular help them get set up, and are happy to offer advice, but the Allbrights have no idea what to expect from an Alaskan winter. The long, dark days, the cold and the lack of provisions serve to escalate Ernt’s behaviour. His rages are intensified by alcohol and Cora bears the brunt of his temper. Despite his remorse and constant promises that it will never happen again, there is more to fear than the weather and wild animals.
All this time, Dad had taught Leni how dangerous the outside world was. The truth was that the biggest danger of all was in her own home.
This is such an emotional and heartbreaking story and it stayed with me each time I had to stop listening. To say the Allbrights are a dysfunctional family is an understatement. Leni and her mother have a very close bond and she hates what’s happening with her father, who can’t seem to outrun his demons. She can’t understand how the love between her parents can be so toxic, but they all try to pretend everything is fine, while actually living in fear.
Kristin Hannah’s descriptions of Alaska and it’s people are so vivid I could picture it all, the good and the bad. Alaska is a character in itself, beautiful, harsh and unforgiving. This is a story of survival, personal and practical, told mostly from Leni’s perspective. The colourful townsfolk are fleshed out and individual. Everyone has a story from ‘before’, they were perhaps a lawyer, a pilot, or a policeman…and each chose to live a completely different life off grid for whatever reason. Large Marge is one of my favourite characters. She has a huge heart and is very fond of Leni and Cora. She takes no prisoners.
“Sit down or I’ll knock you down,” Large Marge said.
Dad sat down on the sofa beside Mama. “That’s not really the way to talk to a man in his own home.”
“You don’t want to get me started on what a real man is, Ernt Allbright. I’m holding on to my temper, but it could run away with me. And you do not want to see a big woman come at you. Trust me. So shut your trap and listen.”