Books · Emotional Health

Two Books About Brave Heroines Finding Their Way Out of Abuse

I enjoy reading novels about women, though lately it seems like there is a  rash of successful ones with the word “girl” in the title, offering unreliable narrators, ambiguous protagonists, and dizzying plot twists. So it’s a relief to recommend new novels offering enthralling tales about brave young heroines without these devices.

Though the art of war may have changed through the use of cyber technology, a new bestseller demonstrates that conflicts between men and women remain stubbornly familiar. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah begins in 1974. Her protagonist is a young teenager as who falls in love with the supportive, sensitive boy-next-door, literally the only boy next door. Matthew is both her nearest neighbor and also the only other teen in her class, because they live on a remote part of the Kenai Peninsula, in an equally remote part of Alaska.

While Matthew’s parents, who are third generation Alaskans with deep roots in the community, are wealthy by local standards, Leni’s family arrive full of unrealistic ideas and not much else. Her father, Ernt Allbright, has inherited a small cabin from a fellow Vietnam vet, but when they conclude their long journey into one of Alaska’s wildest areas, they find an abandoned shack with no utilities. Having few resources or skills, they must rely heavily on the support of the tight community to survive the treacherous Alaskan landscape and weather.

Ernt, traumatized by his war experiences, arrives seething with resentment, survivalist fantasies, and conspiracy theories. Egged on by fellow misfits and oddballs scattered about the small village and its environs, his paranoia—and his drinking—becomes especially dark during the long, sunless winters. And Ernt, increasingly envious and angry at Matthew’s privileged and respected father, is abusive to his own devoted wife, Cora, whom he suspects of being attracted to the other man. These sins of the father in turn set up a Capulet/Montague scenario for the young lovers.

The novel presents a vivid portrait of a classically abusive relationship. We watch as Ernt controls and demeans Cora, progressively weakening her sense of self and dominating her. Their fights and reconciliations are the stuff of dangerous liaisons throughout history. Cora, clinging to the delusion that her husband’s anger is part of his passion, empathizes with his pain and cannot break away from him. But their daughter, Leni, whose love for Matthew opens up new horizons, realizes that the family is on the path to ruin. Unable to persuade Cora  to leave, she wrestles with the painful choice to save herself and abandon her mother, or possibly perish with her.

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