What’s That Book? The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

TitleThe Great Alone

Author:  Kristin Hannah

Genre: Popular fiction

Rating:  4 stars

What’s it about?  A story about a family of three who, in an effort to start fresh, move from Seattle to the open space of Kaneq, Alaska. Cora and Ernt Allbright had been happily married in the 1960s, but everything changed after Ernt returned from service in Vietnam. A prisoner of war for six years, Ernt came home with many demons. When Ernt learns he has inherited land in Kaneq from a war buddy who was killed in service, Alaska sounds like a perfect escape. A mish-mash of settlers in Kaneq form a divided community. Many are homesteaders from several generations back and many are there to escape, including the survivalist clan of Ernt’s buddy. The brief summer in Kaneq soon gives way to an unrelenting winter. And the shortened days reveal an even greater darkness inside the Allbright cabin.

It’s hard enough to adjust to Ernt’s depression and excessive drinking, but Cora has been hiding something much worse. The story is told from the perspective of their thirteen-year-old daughter, Leni, who tries to reconcile her love for her father with the man he is now.

The story starts in 1974 and finishes in the present, describing the many challenges and heart breaking decisions the Allbrights must make.

How did you hear about it?  My book club friend selected it for our December read.

Closing comments:  I enjoyed reading about Alaska and how people survive in such a difficult place. The author did a great job describing both the beauty and the danger of living in Kaneq. Survival is a full-time job there and the Allbrights meet many people who are willing to help.

Despite its 400 plus pages, this is a fast read. Although I enjoyed the story and descriptions, the characters are somewhat stereotypical, making the book a light version of an important time period. A perfectly tied-up finish will make some readers happy and will make others think the ending is unrealistic.

Contributor:  Ginette 😉


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Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen

Miller’s Valley
by
Anna Quindlen

Genre: Fiction

Rating:

Does the land you live on define your family? That question may not be as relevant in today’s world, but there was a time when multiple generations of families were born and raised in the same place. What happens when a family like that is forced to leave the only home they have known for hundreds of years?

That’s the problem Bud and Miriam Miller face when they learn that the government plans to displace an entire town and turn Miller’s Valley into a reservoir. It’s the central conflict in the Millers’ marriage and one which affects their family and neighbors in a multitude of ways. Bud does not want to leave, but Miriam is ready. Some friends sell, others are holdouts.

Miller’s Valley takes place during the 1960s and 70s in a small farming town in Pennsylvania and is narrated by Mimi, the youngest Miller. In addition to a story about eminent domain, it is Mimi’s coming-of-age tale. As a ten-year-old girl, her world is made up of her family and a couple friends, but as she grows and her two older brothers leave, Mimi tries to imagine what she will do. Her brother, Tommy, urges her, “You come up with your own plan, Meems. No matter what happens.”

Despite a promising future, family obligations and loyalty to her father’s beliefs press hard against Mimi’s heart and she becomes more entrenched in life in the valley, despite its doomed future. Mimi’s best friend, Donald, moves to California and her Aunt Ruth hasn’t left her house in years. Tommy and her other brother, Eddie, go off in completely directions and Bud Miller continues to ask, “Who will run the farm when I’m gone?”

I enjoyed reading Miller’s Valley because I had only thought of eminent domain in terms of roads being built, and did not know of the government’s practice of flooding towns in order to build reservoirs. I live near a manmade lake with a very similar story, so this book was interesting to me.

Miller’s Valley had the potential to be a great story, but it is a more of a fast read with characters I seem to have met in other books. In addition, Quindlen finishes fast, with a couple hanging plot lines and a “didn’t see that coming” moment that may frustrate some readers. But as I have many reading moods, this one fit in with a busy week and I enjoyed starting and ending my days with an easy story.

I recommend Miller’s Valley to readers who like light historical fiction about family and conflict.

And for those who are interested in the history, here’s a definition of eminent domain and a couple stories about towns that were flooded:

Merriam-Webster definition of eminent domain: a right of a government to take private property for public use by virtue of the superior dominion of the sovereign power over all lands within its jurisdiction

Ephrata Review: “Cocalico Corner: Two tales of two valleys” by Donna Reed – April 27, 2016

Pleasant Valley Lost by Joseph J. Swope – 2015

The Story of Milford Mills and the Marsh Creek Valley: Chester County, Pennsylvania by Stuart and Catherine Quillman – 1989


Other Anna Quindlen books reviewed:

      

Black and Blue
Good Dog. Stay.
Still Life with Bread Crumbs


I read Miller’s Valley as part of my library’s Summer Reading
Challenge to “read a book you own but haven’t read.”


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Friday Fiction is back – Chapter 1: Meet Emily Kingston from Twelve!

Friday Fiction
Welcome to Twelve, a new book of Friday Fiction! This story begins the summer Emily Kingston turns twelve and is about a friendship that changed everything.

I hope you enjoy it!


CHAPTER ONE – MEETING JACKIE

I didn’t know my best friend Jackie yet that first day when she dared me to do a flip off the diving board. I was at our swim club with my brother Tommy. He and I had just gone off the board and we were hanging onto the side when she swam over to us and gave me the dare. I looked at this girl to be sure she was talking to me and to stall for time. Her short blond hair was slicked back off her face, and she studied me with a look that told me she was sure about everything there was in the world. I was sure about only one thing which was that I did not want to do a flip off the diving board, but before I could give her an answer, my brother Tommy said, “I’ll do a flip. I do them all the time.”

Now flips off the diving board at our swim club were against the rules, but kids did them all the time. Whether or not you could get away with doing a flip depended on which lifeguard was on duty, but only the strictest ones ever enforced the rule and even then they just blew their whistles and made you get out of the pool for two minutes. We had just joined the Morris Hills swim club that summer and when I saw “No Flips off Diving Board” on the list of rules posted on the bulletin board, I was secretly glad for the rule. I was not a diver, and definitely not a flipper. I was happy to jump and swim to the side with my body in one piece.

When Tommy discovered that this rule was largely overlooked, he took full advantage and did flips with the rest of the kids. Tommy was an excellent swimmer. Ever since he was little, Mom and Dad always called him our little fish and now that he was ten, Tommy swam with confidence and strong strokes. He dove off the board with ease and, today like every other day, he gave the board that extra bounce just before his feet lifted up, just before he propelled his body into the air, up and then down, arms in front, fingers pointing down and slicing into the water. I envied him because his dives were so effortless and he indeed reminded me of a fish, a flying fish breaking out of the surface of the water and arcing back down showing me that the whole point to such a move was simply for the fun of it.

Tommy looked at Jackie and said, “Front or back?”

Jackie’s face had that look like she had just found a partner in crime and said, “Back flip, and yell ‘Cowabunga!’ as you’re going in.”

Tommy grinned and said, “Piece of cake. Watch and learn.” He got out of the pool and walked to the board and did a perfect back flip. We heard part of “Cowabunga!” as he splashed into the water, but then we heard the lifeguard’s whistle. Tommy was nabbed, but he didn’t care. He had met his dare with the perfect back flip off the board. He climbed out of the pool with a big grin on his face, pleased with himself, but not surprised at his feat, and ran to meet his friends.

Jackie turned to me and said, “Your turn.” I was glad to have an out, the lifeguard being a stickler for rules and said, “Tommy just got whistled out. I’m going to wait.” Jackie looked at me and paused before she opened her mouth, like she was trying to decide whether or not to let me off the hook. “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” she conceded. Then she said, “Hey, I’m Jackie.”

“I’m Emily,” I said, relieved to have escaped Jackie’s challenge. I couldn’t have known it then, but my friendship with Jackie would be filled with all kinds of contests and dares, some, like this one, simple and carefree, and others more dangerous, carrying the weight of what I still carry today. And all of these challenges that were thrust upon me by Jackie came together to form the kind of bond that today stands apart from the others if not because of its intensity, then because of its pain.

I had just turned twelve that summer and so had Jackie. And although our ages were the same, we were different, Jackie and I. Every day that summer, she showed up at Morris Hills in a brightly colored bikini, her thin athletic body briefly covered in polka dots or stripes in neon patterns. And she walked, swam, dove and played with such confidence in the way she looked, that you would think she had been twelve her whole life and knew just how to be. I wasn’t at all sure how to be twelve, but that summer I watched my new friend Jackie and wished I could be like her.

I learned quickly that Jackie was the kind of person who loved taking risks. And during that summer at Morris Hills, there were plenty of chances, not just off the diving board. When Tommy was around, the stakes always got higher. That first day and in the early weeks of the summer, Jackie spent a lot of time daring both me and Tommy to do flips off the diving board. She and Tommy made up dives, flips and moves and challenged each other to them while I watched from the safety of the side of the pool. Tommy knew I didn’t like trying to break my neck, so he made up some underwater moves for me to stay in the competition. I was a decent swimmer and underwater somersaults soon became my signature move. After awhile, Jackie stopped asking me to do anything off the diving board, instead appointing me the official back flip judge and I was glad. I was flattered and glad for a new friend like Jackie who had worked me into her schemes in a way that I liked and I was glad for my brother Tommy who didn’t mind that I was a chicken. And I realize now that just being around Jackie made me feel daring, made me almost feel the same kind of thrill she generated. Most of the time, that feeling was just enough.

All summer long, the dares and contests didn’t end in the swimming pool. We had races to see who could get to our towels first, to see who could drink our sodas first, to see who could do anything first. I was as fast as most kids, and sometimes I won. But Jackie and Tommy ran with athletic ease, stretching their legs with long, graceful strides. Even when we weren’t swimming or racing, we played games, ping pong, gin rummy and checkers, always with a champion at the end. Jackie was a great organizer and soon it seemed she was running all the games for Tommy and me and our other friends. We filled our days with these games and thought of nothing else.

We weren’t thinking about the fall and how each of us would be at different schools. I would be leaving Tommy’s school and starting seventh grade at the Junior School and Jackie was enrolled at St. Mary’s. We had the whole summer and it seemed to extend far into the future.

But sometime during that summer, I don’t know when it started, my friendship with Jackie began to fray, first at the edges, and then as summer turned to fall and fall became winter and winter became spring, and the new fabric of our friendship that had only just been created began to unravel still more. Looking back, I could see how it had come apart, but then, that summer and into the new school year, I could not. It wasn’t until later that I discovered I had a friend I didn’t like, a friend I sometimes hated, but was still drawn towards.

They were just small things at first, barely noticeable and mostly hidden behind the new personality Tommy and I were learning to understand. And I was caught between these things, wanting to be like Jackie, wishing I had her confidence, her poise. Tommy saw her differently and by the end of the summer, and especially after we built our fort in the woods, he was through with Jackie and I didn’t blame him.

Part of me felt sorry for Jackie and I tried to understand her better during those months. I defended her to Tommy. She had to be strong and independent, I reasoned. She had to rely on herself. And beneath that confidence, beneath the girl with no worries, I sometimes thought I saw something else, something more vulnerable and needy. I believe that is why I stayed friends with Jackie after the summer was over.

I think about the series of events that led Jackie and me and Tommy to a section of train tracks in our town the following spring and later to the beach at the shore. I think about Tommy and how, if I had to choose again, I would have acted the same.

The choices I made in such short and frantic bursts of time, they are the choices I have had to live with, to endure. And when I think back I cannot imagine how my brain was able to process the thoughts, choose the actions I only later concluded were right. Actions that others would also judge, my parents, Jackie’s mother, my friends. I couldn’t decide whose opinions mattered most because, in the end, at night, by myself, with my head on a pillow, I was the last person I had to face.

But this story is about the good parts of our friendship as well as the bad and a great many of the long days of summer were filled with laughter and closeness. It was a time in my life when, as a twelve-year-old girl with the seemingly endless vacation in front of me, I was ready to have the time of my life. I was in the mood for fun and so was Tommy. We didn’t need convincing of that and we didn’t need someone to show us how to have fun, except of course Jackie, who fit perfectly into that role.

Thank you for reading.


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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


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