DECEMBER 3, 2011
IF NOTHING ELSE, THE ENDURING fame of Sarah Palin is an indicator that the American imagination is as preoccupied as ever by the idea of Alaska. The forty-ninth state has been fertile ground for the projected dreams and nightmares of generations of American authors. What sets apart their otherwise-predictable narratives about the taming of land and sea is the characters’ capitulation to the wild. In his Utne article “Literature of the Last Frontier: The Alaskan Dream and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” Capper Nichols writes, “What distinguishes the Alaskan [homesteading narrative] is the necessity of continued wildness. Instead of making over the land into a pastoral ideal, homesteaders in Alaska have striven to sustain the wilderness conditions their hunter-gatherer lives require.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alaskan literature from White Fang to Seth Kantner’s 2004 novel Ordinary Wolves has been overwhelmingly masculinist, reinforcing a persistent association between women and the dangers of civilization. For London, Kantner, and many in between, the Klondike is an escape from the oppressively feminine world of people and cities.
Into this fraught landscape comes Melinda Moustakis, whose characters are post-homesteaders, born to men and women already changed by Alaska, searching for identity amidst their heritage of thankless hard work. Moustakis’s first book, Bear Down, Bear North, interrogates the familiar lonely, male-dominated Alaska, revealing it as an outmoded notion, real only in the thoughts of its less-sympathetic inhabitants. Moustakis’s postmodern wilderness is fresh and different, more richly imagined and less knowable than its predecessor, a place where power and freedom are unfairly given and unpredictably won.
The primary narrative in Bear Down, Bear North is a cycle of crises revolving around the dysfunctional and fiercely independent daughters of a homesteading couple named Fox and Polar Bear. These siblings, women restrained and supported by familial and community ties, are Alaskan insiders whose intimacy with the wilderness their own children can only attempt to emulate. They are mamas whose grizzliness would make Palin flinch and run. Some outsiders, chiefly doctors and scientists, appear within the pages, fruitlessly attempting to categorize the native Alaskans who drive the narrative. In Moustakis’s Alaska, people either get it or they don’t. The author assigns agency and authority to those who can navigate the landscape.
A number of stories follow Colleen — Polar Bear and Fox’s eldest daughter — from childhood into late middle age. Colleen’s insistence on self-sufficiency resists even her daughter’s attempts at complete intimacy. Like the Alaskan interior the characters explore, Colleen is beautiful, compelling, unknowable, and harsh. She is the book’s most realized character, the focus of the stories “This One Isn’t Going to Be Afraid” and “What You Can Endure,” which bookend the collection. Moustakis is most animated when writing about Colleen through the voice of her daughter. It is through her eyes that we see Colleen as a child suffering from homesteader parenting that outsiders might call abuse: “There’s a story about her pissing the bed growing up and not being allowed to eat dinner and starving and finding the k-rations and rotten oranges her father hid in a crawl space.” We see Colleen as a pregnant nineteen-year-old biting off her long fingernails so that she can take a typing test and hopefully get a job: “I spit them into the trash can,” she says, “while the lady in the suit watched.” Then she’s a forty-five-year-old woman, finally capping a broken tooth. Her daughter says, “My uncles still call her Snaggletooth, say it’s still there, underneath.” Moustakis’s fixation on the character feels personal: she repeats the k-ration story twice. The author’s preoccupation with what Kathryn Harrison called “the mother knot” absorbs more space than any romantic love story in the book. Ultimately, Colleen’s daughter recognizes that her mother has had to trade vulnerability for survival: “‘California has made you soft,’ she says when I visit. And I always think, Alaska has made you cruel.”
Elsewhere, Bear Down, Bear North offers the reader a host of pleasures, often of the Gothic variety: frostbitten children exploring the wreckage of a plane crash; an isolated, grown-up orphan subsisting only on Saltines while caring for a pack of sled dogs; a sister suffering her fisherman brother’s alcoholism and then the disappointment of the little happiness offered by sobriety. Throughout, Moustakis’s gaze is unflinching and committed to a clear image of the Alaska of her characters, not of national legend. This is a place as rich with urban blight as natural beauty, where mountains and sea never solve the problems of rent and dinner. Although features of the landscape are described in detail, nature’s majestic wonder does not occupy these pages. Moutakis’s characters are just trying to get through the winter.
Born in Alaska and raised in California, Moustakis is the grandchild of homesteaders and the niece of a salmon fisherman. She holds graduate degrees in creative writing from nationally ranked programs. She is the very picture of a specific type of contemporary American writer: preoccupied with familial memory and the accumulated power of story that has long been nurtured in the oft-criticized reign of the writing program. Moustakis got her book deal as the winner of the University of Georgia Press’s 2010 Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction. Barely thirty, Moustakis seems poised to reap the highest rewards these academic programs have to offer.
It’s tempting to read Bear Down, Bear North as a document not only of a developing American understanding of our imagined Alaska, but also as a product of what scholar Mark McGurl calls “the program era.” The book’s regional focus and sequential format puts it at risk for the criticisms of obscurantism or pettiness that have become de rigeur in the debate about the usefulness and worth of a graduate degree in creative writing. The perennial complaints about the inaccessibility and pointlessness of poetry, theory, and criticism from inside the academy have lately been lobbed at fiction as well. Despite the fact that some of the most popular American authors are on faculty at university writing programs, happily churning out bestsellers, the association between the ivory tower and the inconsequential persists. It is easy to forget that this coupling of academe and pointlessness is a product of the last few decades of a staunchly anti-academic tone in the public sphere, and seemingly limited to the category of literature: affiliation with a university does not hurt scientific studies or tomes of business strategy.
These criticisms are especially inapplicable to Bear Down, Bear North. For Moustakis, Alaska is not a region of the imagination; it is a bracingly real place, where gusts of icy saltwater and nights spent in unheated houses challenge and harden unaccompanied young women. Her book is never less than brutally honest. The collection contains thirteen short stories so closely interconnected that it might well be called a novel, if not for its frequent temporal and perspective shifts. Moustakis reveals her academic pedigree and redoubles its worth in her nimble manipulation of storytelling modes. Narratives unfold energetically — in the collective voice, in the second person, and from the point of view of minor characters, demonstrating Moustakis’s singular talent of making intimate and familiar to the reader a world generally known only to its natives.
This is one of the author’s great gifts: cultivating in the reader true understanding of her characters’ wilderness, the way it nurtures and shapes them. Bear Down, Bear North repositions Alaska as part of the environment that Margaret Atwood describes in Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature as “active, female and sinister.” Moustakis argues for her characters’ personal wildness, naming it as the condition that enables her women to break away from prescribed identities. Her stories explore the impact of wilderness on women who, like Colleen, have been born into Alaska and must cope with the landscape, but also of those who have chosen the Yukon, like the Soldotna-based doctor who appears in several stories, both a bearer and a deserter of civilization. Moustakis skillfully shows how a woman can benefit from a different kind of natural law. Here the rules about what — and who —constitutes prey loosen: the doctor “isn’t as gentle as she should be” as she removes a fishhook from a man’s mouth.
Moustakis’s book challenges popular notions about women’s writing, and especially about the output of female MFAs — that it is self-obsessed, overly internal, and dully domestic — with an answer as bold as her setting. Her book goes places never before described or imagined — a “circumpolar sun, as tall as a mountain, skating on the horizon, circling and circling,” a mother who clutches her baby girl “like she was holding a shotgun,” a river of salmon that “grow hooked snouts and wolves’ teeth”—and teaches the reader to know these places as the author knows them, to respect the wildness of the heart and the wildness of the forest. Yes, Bear Down, Bear North chronicles the internal lives of a family of women. What else, Moustakis’s writing asks, could hold your attention? The scenery?