Modern Literary fiction has gained a reputation for snobbery and elitism. This is probably warranted in many cases, but not in the best-selling novel The Great Alone. With this book, lawyer-turned-novelist Kristin Hannah approaches abuse and community in ways that are both relevant and accessible.
The Great Alone tells the story of a family of three, through the eyes of daughter Leni, that moves to a remote Alaskan village with the intent to live off of the land. The father is a Vietnam veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but without modern tools to cope with it. He has trouble holding down a job, drinks too much, and, we eventually learn, beats his wife.
First, there’s the psychology of the mother, who is sure he’ll change, believes his every apology, and only wants to remember what he was like before the war. Then there’s Leni. Her perspective shows how well abusers can hide their actions, even if they’re less sociopath and more uncontrolled drunken rage.
But what’s especially noteworthy is the first turning point for Leni and her mother. It comes not from the law, nor from social services, but from the community. Once her family’s friends learn of her father’s actions, they intervene quickly and forcibly. It does not form a permanent solution, unfortunately, but it gives hope and support, two things largely missing from their lives.
I have to wonder if this is the missing piece for Christians in similar situations. Do we form communities of support where victims can feel comfortable in speaking out? Sometimes, the answer is no. When a woman came forward about an alleged sexual assault by Andy Savage, then a youth pastor in Texas, the response to her was, “So you don’t have any evidence, then.” By contrast, when Savage confessed the incident to his home congregation last year (in an account that was tamer than that of his alleged victim), he was met with applause.
The novel is about domestic abuse, not sexual abuse, but some of the same cultural elements are at play. Victims won’t come forward if their environment is unwelcome to them doing so from the start. But this isn’t only a cultural question, it’s also a legal one. An Alaskan friends who is a former prosecutor tells Leni, “The law isn’t kind to women.” While the landscape is likely better today than it was in the 1970s, this explains in part why women who are victims frequently do not go to the police at the time. In the eyes if victims, the law may not convict the abuser, and may not offer long-term protection. As a former attorney, Kristin Hannah is likely as familiar with this fact as anyone.
It’s important for Christians to consider these issues in that light, both the importance of a supportive community and the reasons victims don’t feel confident in some traditional authority structures. It would be a mistake to take the novel as gospel on these matters – some responses by the “good guys” stray into the vindictive. There are other moral decisions in the book Christians would disagree with as well (although there are elements that are surprisingly pro-life). But when approached with discernment, one may leave this story with a greater appreciation of the complications that domestic abuse carries with it. Perhaps this can spark not only compassion, but discussion in how Christians can address the needs of those victims, both inside and outside the church.