Tag Archives: dysfunctional families

THE GREAT ALONE


Coming Home: Vietnam Veterans In American Society

Click for more information about their abysmal homecoming reception and lack of medical and psychological help.

Sergeant Allbright –

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. He returned to countrymen projecting their hatred of the war on the emotionally and physically damaged Vietnam War veterans. Vets returned to families that became fearful of their soldier experiencing frightening “depression, guilt, flashbacks, nightmares, mood swings, angry outbursts, anxiety, and paranoia.”

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, distempered 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 and 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 blatant ineptitude and an ample slice of arrogance as well as two women not excited about living in Alaska.

Marge is also aware that Bo Harlan’s run-down one room shack is “on a piece of land that couldn’t be accessed by water at low tide, on [the Kenai] peninsula with only a handful of people and hundreds of wild animals, in a climate harsh enough to kill you.”

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. As Ernt reaches a new boiling point he discovers that Bo Harlan’s father and brothers are survivalists preparing for a nuclear rapture. Earl and Ernt form a dark friendship that threatens the lives of everyone on the island.

Back at the homestead, Cora finds that living in a one room shack won’t allow her to hide Ernt’s beatings. The truth of her parent’s marriage is exposed and promises only to get worse as the perpetual dark of winter drives Ernt to new heights of meanness. And it does.

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 to much sometimes.
He MEANT it.

The island folks have a “come to Jesus” moment with Ernt that sets off a slow-motion fire storm. The years pass. Leni falls in love with a rich neighbor’s son and fumbles through adolescence in a one-room school house. Cora finds life at the extremes suits her. Ernt, away at the oil fields sends home money and returns for brief periods each year; always ready to disrupt island life. 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.

Related imageThe months he is away, life on the island seems like the nirvana he envisioned to Cora and Leni and the locals. These years are the happiest of times in the book. Right up until the day Ernt gets fired from the oil fields and arrives home to discover his rich unmarried neighbor sitting at his kitchen table playing cards with the girls.  As he implodes, all the is good inside Ernt is sucked into a black hole and all the evil releases his Kraken.

I’ll leave what happens to your imagination. I want to make sure that all readers take time to enjoy the beauty, expansiveness and surreal extreme of Alaska. Lay back on the ground and watch the sky in multicolor. Hannah, having lived in Alaska, knows how to describe it to perfection.

I was a little disappointed that most of the characters were not fully developed; the exception being Leni. I fell in love with Large Marge and her oversized personality and big heart.

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!

Recommended.

 

 

 

 

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Finding Hope

finding hope cover

 

Finding Hope
by Colleen Nelson

★★★☆☆

Sand running through My Fingers.
Fluid.
I lost you in the cracks. I keep digging.
But you are too
Far
Gone.

Dundurn Press, 2016
ARC e-Reader (978-1-45973-247-6)
Paperback: 232 pages (978-1-45973-245-2)
Genre: Young Adult/ Fiction / Drug Abuse / Bullying/ Sexual Abuse

Finding Hope tackles some heady subjects that would have been almost unimaginable when this dusty old librarian was an adolescent.  That is not to say that drug abuse, sex abuse, violence and bullying are new to the adolescent scene. it was just not discussed and in my oblivious youth not on my radar.  As sex abuse has soiled our faith in those that care for our children’s minds and souls we sometimes overlook the deep reach of each vile act.  As is the case far too often in the real world, society and families fail their children by failing to recognize the trauma developing, failing to seek justice and mental health care when identified.

This story begins with the older brother, Eric, at age 17, a star hockey player and model student.  Popular and one of the “in-crowd”; expected to have a bright promising future.  His younger sister Hope does not have the limelight at school and feels left behind in her brother’s shadow at home.  She is bullied and an outsider.  Eric and Hope despite their differences of age and social development share a very close relationship probably born more out of a sense of isolation and lonesomeness at home.

Without explanation Eric begins to fall apart. The bottom drops out when his personality changes, he withdraws from academics and sports, and develops an insatiable meth addiction. His step-father is deeply affected by  his collpase and bans him from the home in an act of tough love.  Eric’s mother is unable to completely turn her back on her son but supports the father’s decision in order to maintain “family harmony”.  Keeping to the objective of YA fiction, the story is narrated in Hope’s and Eric’s voices.  Adult dialogue is more directive,angry and accusatory than engaging, interested and supportive.  The parents, more concerned about themselves, are not responsive to their children and their issues; highly deficient parenting skills.

Hope is trapped between parents and Eric.  She doesn’t condone his addiction and behavior.  She feels that there is still hope for Eric and his future.  She sacrifices her own babysitting money to give Eric money and supplies thus hoping to keep to continued contact with her brother.  It might have deepened Hope’s character more if there had been more dialogue within the home at this point in the story.  The step-father’s role in the story is handled by just not including him in the dialogue.  I would like to see him developed a little more.

Her mother recognizes that Hope is in an unhealthy environment at home and enrolls her in a private school. Hope is not wild about going to a boarding school as it would make it impossible to help Eric but it would give her a chance to have a fresh start socially and get her out of the pressure cooker home.

As the story spirals on, Hope and Eric struggle to find themselves amid a toxic world without any sense of security or sense of direction. We eventually learn the background on Eric’s decline and we watch Hope agonize and suffer terribly at the hands of a trio of classmates before reaching deep inside to identity her own strength and moral compass.

One particular passage with Eric touched me deeply.

“What are you doing?” Like a keening animal, she’d asked that question too many times.  When I came home hyped on meth, when I raged in my room for no reason that she understood…when I stole her bank card.

I never answered her  Not with the truth anyway…”What are you doing, Mom?” I should have fired back. Letting me go off with a hockey coach we barely knew, letting him drive me and stay in hotels with me…” Hot anger pulsed through me.

One of the strongest features of the story is Hope’s poignant poetry. I found Hope’s poetry very emotional and revealing. I read that the author reduced the story through numerous edits; perhaps just a little more attention should have been spent on developing each child’s life before Eric’s collapse.  Additionally I felt the failure of the school and community network was not explored adequately.

The concluding chapters are moving, dramatic and riveting. And the ending is satisfying yet acknowledges healing a fractured life leaves scars and cracks that can be forgiven but not easily forgotten.

I would not hesitate to suggest or recommend to interested in young adults.  I don’t think it is a story that expands the genre to include adult interest.

An advance reader copy was provided free of charge by Dundurn Press via Netgalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

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