In 1980, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTDS) was added to the Diagnostic Service Manual (DSM), the handbook for psychiatry professionals on mental disorders. The move was controversial at the time, and untreated trauma victims created more social problems. Just ask Leni.
In the 1970’s, Leni’s father is a PTSD-laden Vietnam veteran. He has trouble holding down a job, and his family frequently moves as a result. Leni’s mother Cora is fiercely loyal yet emotionally complex. She always says “This time will be different,” and believes it. Even when they tackle the Alaskan wilderness; or more properly, it tackles them.
Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone is a strong argument for the value of modern literary fiction. Addressing themes of trauma, abuse, and love, the novel is a hindsight perspective of 1970’s social issues, reinterpreting abuse in particular through the eyes of an increasingly perceptive Leni. But this isn’t your average social commentary story. The abuser is initially a victim, not a perpetrator. He has mental health challenges without the treatment he needs. He’s constantly apologizing for his temper, both to Leni and to Cora. We begin the story approaching his character with sympathy. We might even be tempted to think his failings aren’t his fault.
As things get uglier, it becomes apparent that doesn’t matter. Whatever may have started his descent, it continues picking up speed. The law is no help to abused women in the 1970’s, and Cora blames herself. Victims are in no short supply. If this all sounds a bit depressing, trust me, it is. The unforgiving Alaskan landscape is used to great effect by Hannah, further emphasizing the helpless plight of these women. But oppressive and dreary as this tale is, there remains a saving grace – community. Where the law would not help Leni and her mother, neighbors do. Life and color shine through their Alaskan neighbors, defying archetypes and surprising you with their complexity. What unites them is how seriously they take survival – and that they all know the importance of relying on each other.
These positive influences give Leni an alternative to her dysfunctional home. Their neighbors show what love looks like, which allows her to nurture a healthier view of love than what happens in her home. In the words of a friend of this writer, “It takes a village, but it takes the right village.” These two things – positive examples and close-knot community – are nearly all that hold Leni together. As a result, her value system is one of sacrifice and love rather than fear and lust. This informs decisions Leni makes later on that give her a considerable amount of agency – including one that reveals a pro-life ethic. Christians whose hearts break at #metoo stories had better take note. As a result, her value system is one of sacrifice and love rather than fear and lust. This informs decisions Leni makes later on that give her a considerable amount of agency – including one that reveals a pro-life ethic.
Where Hannah explores these social diseases, however, she also explores questionable remedies. A positive, loving relationship includes extramarital sex. Violence and force replace law and order. That the law was unkind to battered women in the seventies is factual. But there’s also a danger in romanticizing vigilantism, although these decisions are not consequence-free. But even if Hannah’s solutions are suspect, her analysis of the problems is thorough and compelling. In style, as well as substance, The Great Alone is more than worthy of engagement for Christians, even if it is not for the faint of heart.