The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

Author Kristin Hannah has a knack for creating vast sweeping sagas spanning multiple generations in a family’s story.  In The Great Alone, Hannah crafts the story of teenager Leni Allbright who is growing up the the Pacific Northwest in the early 1970s.  Leni’s  father, Ernt,  has just returned from the Vietnam War and is struggling with his life back in the United States.  Her mother, Cora, attempts to cope as best as humanly possible, but struggles with trying to navigate a new life with her husband and growing daughter.  Soon after Ernt returns from the war, he is informed that one of his soldier friends, who was killed in Vietnam, has left him a large swath of land in Alaska.  Without much forethought, Ernt announces to his wife and daughter that they are packing their van and heading from Washington state to Alaska.

After arriving in Alaska, the trio quickly realize that living in the wild will not be as easy as they initially thought and they are woefully unprepared.  They befriend a group of folks, some Alaska natives and some with the same dreams as they did upon their arrival, to live on their own terms.  It soon becomes clear that the scars of war are still affecting Ernt and his mental health continues to deteriorate as the dark and cold winter approaches.  Before too long Leni and Cora become isolated, both mentally and physically, by Ernt.  When a small dispute arises with the neighbors and escalates, Leni has to choose sides, with possibly treacherous results.

Although the story is set in the 1970s, many of the issues facing the Allbright family align with events that are current in today’s world.  The Great Alone isn’t always an easy read and the characters face choices that are part necessary and part catastrophic.  In the end, a novel that is well worth the investment.

 

The Best We Could Do: an Illustrated Memoir by Thi Bui

“The Best We Could Do” by Thi Bui is a poignant, heart-rendering graphic novel about a Vietnamese family’s history and struggle emigrating from Vietnam to the United States during the Vietnam War. The story is set in current times with reflections and flashbacks referencing the author and her parents’ journey of war and struggle in leaving their home-country of Vietnam. The book references the wars and trials of the Vietnamese people before and during the Vietnam War but brings a specifically personal account of Thi Bui and her families journey, highlighting her family’s success and trials of making it out alive with their children only to then come to a new country to find new struggles as refugees or émigrés (which is an emigrant, but more fully defined as “a person who emigrates for political reasons”) learning a new language, culture, political system, and a whole new way of life in the United States.

“The Best We Could Do” is a graphic memoir, well written and painstakingly descriptive that will leave the reader haunted by the beautiful drawings and horrible atrocities of war. As it is a comic book, it is a super quick read that will leave the reader with a greater understanding of life and struggles of refugees and survivors of war as well as their immigrant struggles in living in a new country having survived. The memoir comes full circle by beginning and ending with life… “The struggle to bring life into this world is rewarded by [the cry of a baby]. It is a single minded effort uncluttered and clear in it’s objective. What follows afterward- that is, the rest of the child’s life – is another story.” And thus ends with the author having hope for her newly born child and the life they will live.

The Reason You’re Alive by Matthew Quick

I basically wanted to quit life for two days so I could do nothing other than read The Reason You’re Alive  by Matthew Quick. Apparently Quick wrote this gem in part as an homage to his late uncle, a Vietnam veteran who may have inspired elements of this novel’s “anti-hero”, David Granger.  The novel takes off right from the beginning, and amazingly, Quick sustains the momentum through to the end. I mean, check out this for an opening sentence: “They were giving me the mushroom treatment: keeping me in the dark and feeding me bullshit”. That just has to rank up there with the best opening lines of all time, right? I mean, talk about coming outta’ the box swingin’.

David Granger, main protagonist and narrator of the story is not supposed to be likeable, let alone loveable. But he is just that. After waking up in a hospital after brain-surgery, David rants about the evasive “Clayton Fire Bear” and how doctors are all corrupt scumbags who are either “pill pushers, needle pokers, or people cutters”. He’s right, though, isn’t he? I mean, who hasn’t had a negative experience with a doctor? But of course, he is wrong, too; and for every thieving people-cutter out there you will find a warm, compassionate civil servant who wants to take care of sick people. The truth may lie somewhere in between.

Throughout the course of this book, you’ll be amazed at the things that David says: and believe you me, he has something to say about everyone. And you’ll find that he’s right: why else would you be laughing SO HARD?  But he’s also wrong because, let’s be honest, it’s easy to stereotype and generalize entire groups of people without a second thought. And that’s where things get tricky, which is to say, human. David reserves a certain disdain for his son, Hank, his “mostly ignorant”, “ball-less”, cry-baby liberal son who wouldn’t cut it for a second in the jungles of Vietnam. And just wait until you meet Femke, Hank’s philandering wife, and their sweet daughter, Ella, who David notes is in the unfortunate position of having two complete morons for parents. All of the characters who fade in and out of David’s life are intriguing and memorable and will teach you something new about life.

This book beautifully reminds us that we see other people through the lens of our own experience. I think you’ll find, by the end of the book, when tears unexpectedly start welling in your eyes, that David strived to shield his family from suffering and pain, even at his own expense whenever possible (even when he was essentially shielding them from himself).This book is about loving and understanding your family and your friends on their own terms. This book is about war, madness, art, family, grace, and ultimately redemption. I dare you not to cry when you discover the rich meaning behind the title of the book, how David wrote it for his late wife, Jessica, and their son, Hank, the two most beloved people in his life. And then I dare you not to cry when it dawns on you that David was shielding you, too, as he had his family, from the heartache of having to let him go after finding out he was  good as gold all along.