A Comparative Book Review: Kristin Hannah’s “The Nightingale” and “The Great Alone” – Part 1

Reading Kristin Hannah’s, “The Nightingale,” piqued my interest to read more by this amazing author.  I was so impressed by her writing abilities.  She created a mesmerizing and eye-opening world of Nazi occupation in France during World War II and two very strong female lead characters, one of whom is the narrator. 

I went in search of another story written by her and found her most recent novel, “The Great Alone.”  This novel took place during the 1970s in the wilds of Alaska. The stories trace the lives of a family and the friends they make after transplanting themselves from Seattle into what turns out to be the outskirts of civilization.  The main narrator again is a female voice, although this time it is clear from the beginning that it is a young woman, Leni.   She provides the insights of a much younger perspective of life as a teenager and later young adult coming of age in a territory not yet settled or welcoming to the young and as she learns especially not protective of women. 

After completing both novels, I thought about how different the two story lines were, but at the same time found themes they both shared.  Focusing on their shared themes of survival, identity, and love, a comparison of the novels follows in three parts.  Here, the theme of survival as compared between the two novels and applied to today’s world will be explored.  

Survival

This theme permeates both novels.  In “The Nightingale,” the main narrator of the novel –spoiler alert – turns out to be the surviving sister, Vianne.  It is unclear throughout the novel who the narrator is exactly.  In fact, for most of the novel, I believed the narrator was Isabelle, whose code name during the war was, “Nightingale.”  Perhaps, this sophisticated writer, wanted to cause a blurring of the lines and overlapping of who the nightingale was by leaving the narrator unidentified.  At first blush, the character of Isabelle having the code name made me think she was the namesake of the book.  But after seeing the triumphs accomplished by Vianne by the end of the book in saving so many children from death by the Nazis, maybe she is the true, “Nightingale,” intended by the author? 

I believe each character sang a song of truth and justice in the middle of the darkness of the night of our human history.  The atrocities of the Nazis that are illustrated by this novel bring to light the true darkness that covered our world.  Never before had I had these truths painted so vividly before my eyes.  I had thought before reading this novel that I was an educated World War II student.  I now have a much greater appreciation for not only the triumph of the Allied forces against the Axis of Evil, but also now for the stand alone bravery of the individuals who did their part fighting Hitler’s regime as civilians.  I see now that the darkness that Hitler cast was only able to be fought with the light of the brave and virtuous. 

The light of goodness in Isabelle and Vianne showed through even the most difficult of times.  Their bravery and ability to survive each in their own way is what made this book doubly fascinating.  The sisters Isabelle and Vianne had a rocky relationship throughout their young adult life.  Once the war hits, they both take different paths.  Isabelle’s personality is one of immediate reaction, defiance, and blind courage, risking her life numerous times leading a group of resistance civilians against the Nazi power. Ingeniously, she comes up with a pathway to return fallen airmen from occupied France over a mountain to a diplomatic office in Spain that could then transfer the Allied soldiers back to safety.  What fortitude it took to withstand the grueling crawl up the treacherous mountainside time and time again, not to mention the ability to survive pursuits by the Nazis, all of whom were told the code name and given orders to find and kill, “The Nightingale.”  Even with a bounty on her head, she proceeded. 

What was she driven by?  At the most basic level, it was her will to survive.  She lived to see the day in France where France would be free again and the evil empire would fall into the depths of weakness.  She lived to see her sister and freedom, but the awful imprisonment in concentration camps caused her to die of disease. 

Her most poignant recognition was that her life was enough.  She lived to look back on her life and come to the realization that what she had done, how she had lived, what she accomplished, it was all enough.  She didn’t need to live any longer.  What beauty!  What incredible insight into life and how to live it.  There are many parts of this book that made me cry, but her moment of recognition was the most beautiful scene of the novel and the one that will stay with me for the rest of my life.  It even guides me as I live now. 

Vianne’s experience during the occupation is just as treacherous and dangerous as her sister’s although different in setting. She stays in the same house throughout, but evil and horror find her.  Her initial reaction to the occupation is cautious.  Her husband has to join the French troops battling the Nazis.  She must stay home with other mothers to protect the children.  Vianne slowly builds her strength as she learns she must fight back to protect herself and the children she is raising and even later saving.  She survives rape innumerous times, pregnancy by rape, and nearly constant beatings by the second Nazi soldier that comes to occupy her home. 

Her survival is impressive because of its quiet fortitude.  She is able to focus on the good in her children and her friends, and continue to live even after a horrific attempt to flee goes terribly wrong.  She is able to lift her head up in the face of domination time and time again.  She is able to keep the pieces of her mind and heart intact enough to see to it that Jewish neighbors and friends of friends’ children are saved in a Catholic orphanage.  Her creativity and courage helped not only her to survive, but enabled many children to make it to the other side of hell on earth. 

What is completely amazing is that Vianne lives out her life in almost complete anonymity.  It would be only fitting for her unassuming character to live like this though.  In the end, she is able to see the honors bestowed on her sister in a ceremony in Paris marking the life of, “The Nightingale,” attended by many of the families of the airmen whom she led to safety and ultimately life. 

During the initial days of quarantine caused by COVID-19, reading this novel filled with survival stories gave me hope and perspective. So much so that I sought out another novel written by Kristin Hannah. When I read the description of the Alaskan wilderness in, “The Great Alone,” I knew that I would need to continue to read about survival as written by this great author. What I found was another story of great physical and mental survival.

Next, in, “The Great Alone,” a family’s life in untamed Alaska provides the setting for survival by each of main characters.  Leni, the narrator, lives a vagabond life being uprooted time and time again by her parents, Cora and Ernt.  Ernt is a Vietnam veteran with alcoholism and severe PTSD.  He is violent and abusive toward his wife and later in her life, to Leni. 

The family’s move to Alaska is at the whim of Ernt’s belief that a whole new life awaits them there.  After inheriting a small plot of land from a fallen comrade, he drives his family to Alaska unknowing of the treacherous land that awaits them.  It does not take long for Ernt to join a militia of locals who want to disentangle themselves from the strings of government and fend for themselves.  The irony is that Alaska is so unsettled at the time that most people already have to fend for themselves and their neighbors.  Ernt slips back into alcoholic binges and violent rages leading Leni to witness her parents’ awful relationship up close.  The abuse that had been hidden cannot be disguised in the small shack they live in in Alaska.  Leni grows up trying to protect her mother, Cora, but realizes along the way that her mother’s love for Ernt will prevent Cora from ever leaving him. 

Leni has the respite of her friendship with Matthew, though, a young man from a prominent family in town.  Their friendship is the first of her life and grows into the first love of her life.  It is a beautiful story of love against the odds and against all their families’ wishes.  But their love survives.  Maybe that is the way the author wanted it to be.  To illustrate this, much later in the novel, their love even survives a horrible accident where Matthew sustains severe brain injuries in a crevice after Leni is able to keep them both alive with her own survival skills of saving water and applying tourniquets to their injuries while they waited for rescue.   

Perhaps though the greatest moment of survival in the novel is – spoiler alert – when Cora, in self-defense and in defense of her daughter, shoots and kills Ernt as he attempts to attack and kill Leni and her unborn child with Matthew.  After all the beatings that Cora endured throughout the novel, this moment is one of shock and relief for the reader.  I felt like finally her love of Leni outweighed her love of Ernt.  She was brave and protective of her daughter to ensure that they both survived.  What ensues after is complicated as they both try to figure out what to do next, but in the end they both survive.

The surprising love that survives between Matthew and Leni reuniting in the end is reminiscent of the love that survives between Isabelle and her father when he shows up to take her place for the death squad.  It was a twist in both novels of such care and pure love that survived the test of time and war, respectively.  This is another beautiful tale of survival – survival of love.

Perhaps both novels’ theme of survival is just a jumping off point for character and plot development, but I found that the survival theme resonated so strongly throughout both novels.  It could be Kristin Hannah’s greatest insight as a writer.  How do we as humans survive horrible atrocities, injustices, violence, oppression, evil?  How does our love survive these circumstances?  Or is that the answer – love causes us to survive? 

Today, while we are facing this brave new world of protecting ourselves and our children from COVID-19 and social injustice, we need to focus on love.  We need to speak of love more often.  In the end, if we all live together with love won’t we be able to survive and thrive?  Kristin Hannah seems to know what it takes to survive.  Both of these novels take us to places that educate and show us what we as humans are capable of in order to survive. 

In the next part, join me in exploring identity as a theme in both novels, followed by love in part three of this comparison.

© 2020 Megan Davia Mikhail

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