A Comparative: Kristin Hannah’s “The Nightingale” and “The Great Alone”- Part 2: Identity

If you are reading this comparative for the first time, I recommend part one to give more background.  For a quick synopsis, 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.  So 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.  There are many overlapping themes of the two novels, but I am focusing on survival, identity, and love.

Here, a discussion of the theme of identity is presented.  First, in “The Nightingale,” Kristin Hannah paints a time during World War II where society’s beliefs about what a woman should and shouldn’t do are challenged.  The two main characters, sisters, Isabelle and Vianne, both take different routes during the war, but each one is facing a new role.  Isabelle is blocked to fight the war in a traditional role as a uniformed soldier, but she finds another way to fight on the front lines.  Vianne stays home to care for her family when her husband is required to join the French military, but her new role as head of the household is a foreign role for her.  Surprisingly, her role becomes one that requires her to engage in hand-to-hand combat and fight the enemy in her own personal battles.   

What the author has done in this novel is presented two dueling stories of the sisters living through the exact same time period, but in different roles.  Their identities as women define their experiences in the war.  But at the same time, it is a rare and particularly interesting lens by which to see the World War II.  How often were we taught the history of the war through the reports given mainly from a male, soldier’s point of view?  Almost 100% of the time.  The beauty of this writing and the surge in female narrated historical fiction of World War II is that for the first time in my life I am learning the fascinating details of a war I thought I knew so much about. 

What is interesting to compare between the sisters is their womanhood – how each defined and challenged her role as a woman.  Isabelle and Vianne may be considered foils from their outer appearances as secret agent and stay-at-home mom, respectively, but they share a common identity as unbelievably strong women.  They exceed any norms of strength both mentally and physically.  How could either of them have made it through all of the horrific days they each went through without this strength?  This was done purposefully by the author to illustrate the abilities of a woman and to break down stereotypes of women’s roles.  The author knows the untapped strength of women and is seeking to have the reader obtain this knowledge in beautifully drawn characters like Isabelle and Vianne. 

Each woman is presented in a complex way.  For example, although both have fears, they pursue their strongly-held moral beliefs to save the innocent by any means.  They are fearless when faced with danger.  Isn’t this the antithesis of what a woman was presented as being during that time period?  Maybe even now?  The courage it took Isabelle to hide what would have been Nazi’s prisoners of war is incredible.  And the tenacious defense that Vianne exerts when – spoiler alert –  killing the first Nazi captain to occupy her home, Captain Beck, after he discovers Isabelle in her home.  These women defy the identity of a woman, especially at that time and possibly even closely-held beliefs of what a woman’s identity and role should be today. 

This theme of a woman’s identity and role is taken into further dissection by Kristin Hannah in her novel, “The Great Alone.”  Throughout the story, a young woman’s perspective is the lens by which the reader is viewing the wilds of Alaska and really every part of growing up as a young woman in America in the 1970s.  Where the personal stories of Isabelle and Vianne are confronted with the war and the rules and regulations of the war, Leni and her mother, Cora, are confronted with the lack of rules and regulations in the American legal system to protect abused women. 

Throughout the novel, Cora is physically abused by her husband, Ernt, a veteran with PTSD from the Vietnam War.  When the family moves to Alaska, the physical abuse is unable to be hidden from Leni any longer due in part to the small home in which they live on the outskirts of civilization both literally and figuratively.  The fighting continues throughout the book with short interludes of relief provided by a strong character, Marge, a friendly and manly neighbor who helps their family integrate into the world of the frontier.  She advises them on everything from how to store food for the winter starting in the summer and how to navigate the quirky people.  Her background is slowly revealed as a former attorney who left the pressures of big city life after failing to help her sister in her legal and personal battles with her abusive husband.  This revelation of her past is a driving force for Marge’s protection of Cora and Leni. 

Marge’s knowledge of the lack of protections by the legal system for battered women is extremely important and helpful to Cora and Leni.  However, the author is always cognizant of recognizing the fact that even without this help from Marge, Cora and Leni both know deep down that they will be their only protection.  They will have to fight Ernt themselves and they do.  They find a way to freedom, but not without breaking through strongly held beliefs about what a battered woman’s identity is. 

Cora is able to save herself and her daughter and truly her unborn grandson when she – spoiler alert –kills Ernt.  She is able to have the forethought to write a deathbed confession and have her lawyer witness it to help her daughter in the future.  She is able to do what no person should have to do, but she is able to do so with strength that the reader does not see coming. 

Was Kristin Hannah saying something about the legal system and its lack of protection for battered women?  Or was she saying women have found a way to fight back with or without the protections of the legal system and they will continue to do so?  She leaves the reader believing that a woman’s identity is not defined by society’s labeling as a “battered woman.”  Instead, a woman’s identity is defined by her strength, her heart, and her belief in herself.

Breaking down identity and gender roles is extremely difficult.  Kristin Hannah is able to do so with ease and beauty in both of these novels.  What is amazing is that as one reads these novels these themes are effortlessly woven into broader story lines. 

In the next and last part of this comparative the theme of love in both novels is explored in greater depth.  Until then, take care!

© Megan Davia Mikhail

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