This review may contain SPOILERS!! You’ve been warned.
I kicked this book down the road for quite a while because it’s just not in my usual genres. As an Alaskan, I also have a real fear of reading books that take place in Alaska because of what might be mis-portrayed or annoying in them. The Great Alone, however, eventually came up in my book club cycle and, thus, seemed unavoidable.
I listened to the audiobook, which was read by Julia Whelan. It’s a good production and she has a good voice. Listening to the book caused me to hear some of Kristin Hannah’s writing tics that I might have bypassed if I’d been reading visually. Whelan clearly did research on her pronunciations, but there were a couple just off enough that it stood out to someone familiar with the Alaskan words. I doubt it would bother most readers.
I would describe this book as having a little too much plot. Between PTSD, spousal abuse, alcoholism, young love, injury, *crime*, and the long, slow stressful denoument, I was both hooked and annoyed. Last night, I finally Googled for spoilers because I knew I needed to sleep, but I wasn’t going to be able to do so unless I had some broad sketches of what happened at the end of the book.
This is definitely a plane or beach or mountain house book- a story to suck you in, pull you along, give you characters to root for, and a clear villain to detest. In fact, it would be difficult to find any redeeming quality in the villain. There is a very little nuance in the book.
I do have one significant issue with the book- beyond the occasional Alaskan descriptions that were just fictive enough to be annoying.
My main issue is this: I struggle with the character of Large Marge (Marge Birdsall) because I think that she fulfills the trope of the Magical Negro and I really don’t have time for that. Spike Lee uses that term and Christopher John Farley uses the phrase, “Magical African American Friends”.
This trope, created by white authors and movie producers, occurs when a Black character or other Person of Color exists in the narrative to help, save, comfort, or defend the white (main) characters. The MAAF/MN/MPOC rarely has any other backstory nor do they have an additional role in the narrative beyond the actions they take for the narrative salvation of the white (main) character(s).
Large Marge appears when the Allbright family arrives in Kaneq. She runs the general store and shows up with two other women to help the family begin to prepare for the winter. While we learn exactly one story about Marge’s past (the story of her sister), we rarely see anything else about her. Sure, she’s sometimes in the store or at a barbecue. Occasionally, we are treated to a description of how her hair has changed.
We know additional information about Tom Walker and Geneva Walker. We have conversations with people in the Harlan clan until they disappear from the narrative (including the aptly named Moppet). We even know more about Ms. Ryder, the teacher.
Large Marge appears when Leni or Cora need help and that’s it. They never go for a picnic with her or take a trip to Homer with her or share pictures with her or visit her cabin for coffee. We don’t know anything about what Marge wanted to do with her future, why she liked Kaneq, if she had opinions on Dr. King or Malcolm X, what kind of law she’d practiced, if she hated disco music, or what she thought ANCSA and ANILCA or the price of tea in Juneau.
She is there when she’s needed (for the sake of the white women) and then she’s gone. In the final dramatic moments of the book, when she bursts in to save an Allbright woman ONE MORE DAMNED TIME, I nearly threw my phone (audiobook) across the room, but stopped in time because that thing is expensive.
This kind of book- a long, well-promoted bestseller from a well-known author- is exactly the kind of book that should nip this trope in the bud. Surely, an editor should have looked at Large Marge and thought, “We need a little bit more about her; she can’t just keep showing up to save Cora and Leni.”
The character is boisterous, truth-telling, and moves the plot along. It’s easy to overlook the MN/MAAF/MPOC characterization and to say, “Hey, at least there was a Black woman in a book about Alaska in the 70s.”
That’s not enough.
Black and POC characters matter and their characterization matters. If they exist to drive the plot along for the white people (magically at just the right moment), we aren’t really seeing these characters as real people with real lives, real motivations, and real plans. It would have taken perhaps five paragraphs in an already lengthy book to make Large Marge more real. Given the number of eyes on this book over the years, that tiny amount of writing contributes to the other work of helping white people, especially, white women realize that Black Girl Magic is not here to save us. And it was never meant to do so.