You are a hard man to find. I am Earl Harlan.
My son, Bo, wrote many letters home about his friendship with you. I thank you for that.
In his last letter, he told me that if anything happened to him in that piece of shit place [Vietnam], he wanted you to have his land up here in Alaska.
It isn’t much. Forty acres with a cabin that needs fixing. But a hardworking man can lives off the land up here, away from the crazies and the hippies and the mess in the lower Forty-Eight.
Ernt Allbright, unlike his friend, Bo, did return to his family after years in a Vietnamese POW camp; scarred in so many ways.
Ernt and Cora Allbright along with their daughter, Leni (Lenora) represent a family struggling to make a postwar life together; and failing miserably. The happy go-lucky Ernt failed to return from Vietnam. In his stead, a surly, dis-tempered shell of his former self arrived. Unable to tame his demons, Ernt has developed a chronic history of unemployment and alcohol abuse. But these failings are not the worst of his new personality traits.
When something triggers his inner demons, Cora, adept at hiding the abuse from Leni, becomes his punching bag. Much like other abusive marriages, a sweet honeymoon and serial apologies diminishes the beatings. The cycle repeats itself over and over; exacerbated by the dark of night.
For Ernt, Earl Harlan’s letter and offer of a remote refuge seems like the perfect answer to all his troubles; a promise of brighter future. A place where he can make a life without interference of any kind. A place he is sure that he can be free of those things that make him fly off the handle.
“Think of it,” Dad said, lifted out of his seat by enthusiasm. “A house that’s ours. That we own. . . We have dreamed of it for years, Cora. Live a simpler life away from all the bullshit down here. We could be free.”
With little regard for the ambivalent feelings of his wife and child, Ernt packs the family into their beat-up VW bus, hoists a flag -Alaska Or Bust – and heads to what he sees as nirvana. A family about as prepared for the harsh subsistence life as a cub scout leading an Everest excursion.
Arriving in Alaska, they are dumbstruck by the vastness and the beauty. The family stops at Large Marge Birdsall’s Trading Post/General Store looking for directions to their new home. Ernt announces proudly that they are going to be living full time on the island at Bo Harlan’s old place! It doesn’t take long for Large Marge, a former big city attorney, to spot Ernt’s blatant ineptitude and an ample slice of arrogance. She also notes two women not excited about living in Alaska.
Bo Harlan’s paradise is really a run-down one room shack on a piece of land inaccessible at low tide. The isolation and the catastrophic condition of the land and buildings move the locals to provide advice and help; they know the Allbrights have a slim to none chance of surviving the fast approaching winter. In time and with guidance from new friends, Cora and Leni take to the subsidence lifestyle like a duck to water.
Ernt, on the other hand resents the interference and his anger feeds his paranoia and violent nature. Ernt reaching a new boiling point turns to Bo Harlan’s father and brothers, survivalists preparing for a nuclear rapture. Earl and Ernt form a dark friendship that threatens the lives of everyone on the island. Despite fellow islands holding a “come to Jesus” moment with Ernt, his hatred smolders.
Back at the homestead, Cora pays the price of Ernt’s wrath. The beatings look to get worse as the perpetual dark of winter drives Ernt to new heights of meanness. And it does. Cora and Leni face the truth that someday they are going to have to make life altering decisions. . .But not yet says, Cora. I love him.
Leni looked at her mother’s beaten, bruised face, the rag turning red with her blood.
You’re saying it’s your fault?
You’re too young to understand. He didn’t mean to do that. He just – loves me too much sometimes.
He MEANT it.
The years pass. Ernt finds employment that takes him away from home to the the oil fields. He does send money home. He returns for brief periods each year; always ready to disrupt island life; everyone holds their breath until he leaves again.
Leni fumbles through adolescence. She falls in love with a rich neighbor’s son. Cora finds life at the Alaska extremes and subsistence life suits her. The girls make friends with some of the islanders and enjoy what they would likely describe – a normal life.
Until. Ernt is fired from the oil fields and arrives home unexpectedly to discover his rich unmarried neighbor sitting at his kitchen table playing cards with the girls. He implodes at the sight of his wife enjoying herself.
All the good that still lives inside Ernt is sucked into a black hole. When he explodes pure evil is released.
I fell in love with Large Marge and her over sized personality and big heart. My favorite character was Leni. And I was glad that Cora found moments of strength and happiness with life in Alaska. was a little disappointed that most of the characters were not fully developed; the exception being Leni.
Readers should take time to enjoy the beauty, expansiveness and surreal extreme of Alaska. Lay back on the ground and watch the sky in multicolor. Kristin Hannah, having lived in Alaska, knows how to describe it to perfection.
So many themes! Alcoholism, untreated PTSD, domestic abuse, abortion, subsistence living, Alaska, sense of community and more. Any book club should enjoy picking the book apart!