“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.”
A strong beginning leads the way into an increasingly exasperating storyline.
I’m not going to deny that Hannah is a talented writer, because she is. However, her story and her characters walk the line between being convincible and non. The latter part of this novel is full of scarcely credible scenarios which frustrated me and considerably reduced my overall opinion of the book.
In 1974 thirteen year old Leni and her parents relocate to Alaska. Leni’s father Ernt is a former POW who is now suffering from PTSD and is looking for someplace different, away from the troubles he perceives in the bigger cities. We are immediately made aware of his temper and of his intense relationship with his wife and Leni’s mother Cora.
“She loved her parents, both of them. She had known, without being told, that the darkness in her dad was bad and the things he did were wrong, but she believed her mama’s explanations, too: that Dad was sick and sorry, that if they loved him enough, he would get better and it would be like Before.
Only Leni didn’t believe that anymore.”
Alaska however isn’t as idyllic as Ernt believed. Thankfully, their newfound close-knitted community is more than willing to help Leni’s family survive their first Alaskan winter. Ernt forms a close relationship to Mad Earl. These two men fuel each other’s hatred towards the ‘Other’, that is everything outside of Alaska. Ernt’s mounting paranoia of the ‘outside world’ manifests itself in a series of ‘night drills’ and ‘shooting lessons’ for both Cora and Leni. While hunting comes in handy in the wilderness being forced to endure constant drills and ‘rants’ about how society has become ‘sick’ and that soon TSHTF (or will hit the fan…) isn’t as needed. Ernt’s pride and jealousy cloud his judgement and he would rather refuse his neighbours help than admit that he hadn’t fully prepared for an Alaskan winter.
Leni’s becomes friends with the only other thirteen year old in ‘town’. Sadly, because Matthew – her new friend – is the son of a man despised by Ernt complicates matters. Soon this ‘secretive friendship’ takes a bit of the story’s limelight.
Ernt seemingly grows into a one-dimensional ‘villainous’ figure, Cora remains stuck into the role of ‘submissive’ wife, who will wake up far too late, and Leni’s character is so in love with Matthew that she doesn’t truly really come into her own. The secondary characters too remain painfully ‘flat’…Matthew’s father was barely sketched out…Large Marge seemed the stereotypical ‘headstrong’ and robust woman…Matthew is the nice boy who offers little in way of characterisation that is excused by a conveniently placed absence.
Ernt and Cora become a clichéd portrait of a toxic relationship, well timed ‘accidents’ occur so to make story ‘sadder’ and to make Leni’s struggles even more emotionally difficult. Tragedy for the sake of tragedy…or in this case it seemed that by having a series of ‘unfortunate’ things happen could exempt the writer from writing a more thoughtful and realistic conclusion. It is as if halfway through the book Hannah had no idea how to complete Leni’s story so decided to throw in a bunch of ‘tragic’ plot devices as to bring her story to a close.
Hannah’s writing can beautifully describe landscapes and feelings. However, too often, she resorts to cheesy turns of phrases.
“She turned to Matthew, loving him so much, so desperately, it felt like she was being held underwater and needed oxygen.”
Leni’s relationship with Matthew was from the-get-go far too corny. Their scenes were soppy, their whole relationship was predictable and over-sentimental. It seemed that their ‘love’ was born out of them being the same age and sharing a love for Tolkien…
Hannah’s over-sentimental style combined with the story’s swerve into ‘soap-opera’ territory eroded the initially enjoyment I experienced in reading those first few chapters.
I much preferred Hannah’s The Nightingale which was also somewhat melodramatic but never seemed as sappy as this…
“Up here, in the vastness of Alaska, the words sounded infinitesimal and small. A fist shaken at the gods.”
My rating: 2 stars