The Great Alone – Review

** This review (and the book) will contain possible triggers regarding domestic abuse and violence **

“It’s like his back is broken, Mama had said, and you don’t stop loving a person when they’re hurt. You get stronger so they can lean on you. He needs me. Us.”

So we meet the Allbright family. Ernt and Cora, along with their daughter Lenora, or Leni for short. They find themselves struggling to forge a life in a country torn apart by war and in the midst of social change. Ernt is broken, not adjusting back into everyday life after returning to the States from a POW camp in Vietnam. And while women are burning their bras and marching for change, Cora still can’t get even a credit card without her husband or fathers signature. Cora and Leni need Ernt.

When he receives a letter from the father of a man he served with, offering them land and a home on a piece of property in remote Alaska, Ernt is convinced this is the second chance he needs. That in the great expanse of Alaskan wilderness he will find the peace he is searching for and be able to finally take care of his family. Cora, desperate for the man she feel in love with to return, readily agrees. What they can’t sell, they pack the rest into their VW bus and head North.

“The last frontier was like her dad, it seemed. Larger than life. Expansive. A little dangerous.”

Summer in Alaska is a bit magical. Light that never quite fades, the beauty and majesty of Alaska captivating, enthralling, bewitching. Hannah captures the essence of this lush landscape in her words, and you feel the hope the Allbright’s feel in their first months in Alaska. They are welcomed into the tight community, and the constant work is good for Ernt to help keep his demons at bay.

But, we know, all magic comes with a price. And that price is Winter. As the days grow shorter, and the weather tightens it’s grip, making the world smaller, Ernt has to face the demons he’s been running from.

“Terrible and beautiful. It’s how you know if you’re cut out to be an Alaskan. Most go running back to the Outside before it’s over.”

We get this novel mostly from the perspective of Leni. Spanning her youth from 13 on, the majority of the book is spent in her teenage years. We see her parents toxic relationship entirely from her point of view, which makes it feel maddening and heart breaking. She understands and doesn’t understand. She is confused, not just what her father is going through, and why he behaves the way he does, but why her mother dances this dance as well.

This narrative is heartbreaking because we go through each tumultuous up and down with Leni. We feel her confusion. We feel her heartbreak. We feel her anger and her rage and her deep sadness. Our heart breaks with her over and over and over again.

The Great Alone is a slower novel, building into each explosive moment with quiet ease. In this way, I think Hannah does an excellent job showing how slowly these violent situations can grow. How they can start small, each explosion a little worse, and a little worse. How that makes it hard to see the violence for the truth of it. And by the time you do, it can be too late.

Showing us this slow escalation through the eyes of Leni gives us the tragic view of a child. How things can go from stable and sure, to unstable and unsure at a moments notice. Leni can only try to understand what she sees and hears from her mother, and those answers aren’t always satisfying, to her or the reader. But, she loves her mother, and as a child, she is trapped in the decisions of her parents and has to sort them out as best she can.

“But was she supposed to be trapped forever by her mother’s choice and her father’s rage?”

We also have the added element of PTSD, though the name wasn’t around at the time. This is also a slow descent into madness for Ernt as well. We don’t begin with a violent man, but time and choices wear him down. I don’t think this was done to evoke sympathy for Ernt, but perhaps to show how tangled these situations can be for the people woven into them.

Writing domestic abuse isn’t easy. Since we are getting this narration through Leni’s eyes, we don’t get full explanations. We get glimpses into understanding. Excuses and half explanation in conversation with her mother. We see how love and hate can become mixed, and how difficult it can be to really untangle when love becomes too toxic to save.

“Someone said to me once that Alaska didn’t create character; it revealed it.”

Hannah uses the actual setting of Alaska almost as another character in the book. She shows that living in this harsh, rugged environment can be incredibly beautiful, with descriptions so gorgeous they make you ache. Her prose is lyrical and wondrous, showing the beauty that can be both breathtaking and deadly. She brings Alaska alive and shows us that it is a changing, demanding, living thing.

Using the landscape of Alaska gives the entire book a visceral feel. You can feel how dangerous and beautiful Cora’s love for Ernt is in the very nature of where they live. How it can feel full of hope and light during the summer months. Yet it can be isolating and terrifying in the winter. How it can be simultaneously breathtaking and wondrous, but also cold and cruel.

The Great Alone takes us down a difficult journey. It is beautiful but painful, and there are many scenes that are incredibly hard to read. There is hope and redemption, but like living in Alaska, it takes work. You have to get through the cold, harsh winter to experience the magic of summer. This is a novel about love and loss, heartbreak and despair, resiliency and hope. It is a book that will stay with you and change you.

Thank you BookSparks and St. Martin’s Press for sending me a copy to read and review for #WRC2018!

Gather The Daughters – Review

This review is going to contain some spoilers, so if you haven’t read this book and are interested in it, please be warned. This book is also heavy with trigger issues, specifically, sexual abuse and violence, along with domestic abuse.

“Laughter for a boy, tears for a girl.”

That one sentence summarizes the horror of living as a girl in this disturbed society. Even calling this society disturbed doesn’t feel like enough. It is horrific and beyond understanding.

I went into this novel expecting creepy. I expected something bad and disturbing to happen. What I didn’t expect was the entire thing to be creepy and disturbing.

Gather The Daughters takes place on an island. This group of people live by the word of their ancestors, “The Ancestors”, who have rigid rules in place to keep everyone in line. They’ve been on the island, isolated from the rest of the world for generations.

The rest of the world is called, The Wastelands, and they are raised believing that fire and disease have eradicated the land. The Wanderers, a small group of men, are the only ones allowed to travel beyond the island and collect items from the wasteland. The Wanderers are also the enforcer of these rules from the Ancestors, although they can add to the rules as they wish. But they are in complete control of everyone’s life on the island.

We hear only from the viewpoint of a handful of daughters. Vanessa, Caitlin, Amanda and Janey. Vanessa is a wanderer’s daughter and so seemingly has it better than the rest. Caitlin is physically abused by her alcoholic father. Amanda is recently a married woman, having just finished her “summer of fruition” and is pregnant with her first child. And Janey, the small incredibly strong willed girl who starves herself in order to make sure she never turns into a woman.

All of this sounds like typical dystopian fiction, right? Yeah, until you realize that the reason it’s horrible to be a girl in this society is that fathers lie with their daughters. Yes, you read that right.

Okay. So, I’ve read some pretty dark and disturbing books in my life as a reader. And sometimes they deal with really icky issues like incest and rape and abuse. But in every book that I can recall, there was a point. A plot driven point that makes it understandable why the author chose to dive into these awful subjects. I wish I could say the same for this book. Sadly, I can’t.

Here are the main inconstancies that bother me. First, we are never given any information regarding the wasteland to really understand how this society emerged. We get hints and clues, but even more disturbingly, it seems that most of the facts regarding the devastation of the wastelands appears to be made up to keep everyone compliant. All I can gather is that the ancestors were a bunch of pedophiles that wanted to sleep with their daughters.

But even that doesn’t make sense because they came to the island with families! So how does a mother, growing up in a society that even somewhat resembles the one we live in, get on board with this?! How do TEN??? It’s beyond comprehension, and even more frustrating is that the author doesn’t even attempt to explain! For me, I could have stomached this society a little more if I had been given any explanation of how they were created. Or understand why the men continue to go along with it, when clearly The Wanderers know full well what is happening in the rest of the world. It feels incomplete and inadequate.

My other problem is there is zero redemption in the end. We are given the seeds of discontent through the discovery that women who are unhappy or perhaps a little too opinionated frequently “bleed out” and die. Except no one ever sees the body. However, this community is so controlled that it has never been raised or questioned. Until Janey wants justice for her friend.

Janey begins to rally the girls and forms a rebellion of sorts. But right when you think something will happen, something will spark a change or force this society to reveal details it doesn’t want revealed, a mysterious illness conveniently sweeps through and kills almost everyone. The Wanderers force everyone to remarry and decide to bring in more families from The Wastelands. To add to the genetic line. Which the ancestors wrote a warning about, needing to add to the gene pool.

But even the rebellion is problematic. If this is a society that has been bred in such tight control for so many years, and trained to believe that this is normal and natural, why would the girls feel it was wrong. The mother’s are sometimes described as being jealous of the father-daughter relationship, which feels more real in this sense than being horrified by it. So, where does the sense of “wrong” come from? I suppose the author is saying that there is an innate knowledge of wrong behavior, but coming from someone who works intimately with abused children, I’m a little surprised at that belief. Usually abused children aren’t aware that the abuse is wrong, unless they’re told to keep a secret, or some other indicator is given. But there have been plenty of cases where that behavior wasn’t given any morality and it was simply accepted. So where would these girls or fathers have learned any wrong-doing?

I didn’t understand what the point was. This novel was completely horror for horror’s sake. Trauma for trauma’s sake. We are fully immersed in this cult-like society where sleeping with your daughter is “cherished”. It is sick and twisted. Yet, we aren’t given any background to this society and in the end, nothing changes.

Vanessa’s father finds out that The Wanderers were behaving in ways that concern him, and he ends up taking his family away from the island in the dead of night. But even this isn’t redemption or closure. First, we never see what happens, or where they go. But mostly because he didn’t leave because he was remorseful of regretted sleeping with his prepubescent daughter. He left because he was afraid something might happen to her if she stayed. So he loves her. Abusers love their victims in their own way. It doesn’t excuse or forgive the abuse.

I don’t understand what the point of this novel was. I felt traumatized reading it. There was no helping these girls, or saving them from future horrors. Perhaps she meant to make art mimic life in that sense, but the result is simply tragic and horrific.

The novel felt incomplete to me. Whenever an author takes on issues of this magnitude, I do feel that they have an even greater obligation to be sure to handle the subject matter appropriately. First, there was no warning regarding the content of the book. I felt that was misleading and dangerous. Second, the subject is so extreme, that it needed more. It needed a history of the Wastelands, a more solid idea of what that world was like to at least attempt to explain this society. Or, it needed to be more honest about the nature of the men. That they simply were predators relishing this power they held. By trying to make Vanessa’s father sympathetic, even though he is an abuser, is dishonest and misleading. It needed a point to the rebellion or at least some catalyst for change.

I did not enjoy the book. It was a weird glimpse into a sick society.

Thank you to Little, Brown for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.