By Melinda Moustakis; Flatiron Books, 2023; 256 pages; $27.99.
Melinda Moustakis, author of the award-winning “Bear Down, Bear North,” a 2012 collection of Alaska-based short stories, has returned with a related novel. Set in the 1950s, “Homestead” is the story of an ill-matched couple establishing their fraught relationship and a homestead in Point MacKenzie, Alaska — not coincidentally the place where the author’s own grandparents homesteaded.
The novel opens in June 1956, with Lawrence, a young man returned from the Korean War, standing on a piece of marshy land he’s chosen for his future homestead. A few pages later, at a roadhouse near Anchorage, a young woman from Texas, visiting her sister, meets Lawrence, who presses into her hand a piece of paper with “150 acres” written on it. “The first woman Lawrence reckons can winter in a cabin, he will ask her.” Marie, that young woman, seems more taken with the idea of owning land than with the particular man offering it. The two decide the next day to marry.
Each chapter after that goes month by month through that year and the next and the next, through September of 1959, as the couple, fighting their individual demons as well as the hardships of a pioneering life, persevere to “prove up” the homestead claim and establish a family.
Throughout, in the alternating viewpoints of the two characters, Moustakis creates the turbulent inner worlds of both. This interiority, contrasted with precise details of landscape, weather and conditions in pre-statehood Alaska, builds a psychological portrait of two flawed and intriguing characters in conflict with themselves, each other, and the challenges they face.
Moustakis writes a richly beautiful prose that flows like weather through the seasons, phrase upon phrase. In the depth of her first winter, when she wakes to a sparkling ice-crystal morning, Marie thinks, “This miracle of a morning, as fine as can be, right here, no bother about before or after, or how she married a man so she could be on her own and have her own, and this is zero and nothing counted, nothing borrowed and nothing owed, no account to be taken from her, the balance is made and the balance is in her favor and ain’t it the truth, to be told, that God favors those who help themselves?”
The author obviously did considerable research into the region, the time period, and homesteading. The landscape, with its spruce trees, lake, blizzards, mosquitoes, and a looming mountain, proves a character in its own right. Moustakis includes details of homestead staking and planting and a copy of the “proof” Lawrence files to receive the deed to his land. There are references to a Nike missile site, which did exist nearby — not until 1959; it’s an intriguing detail from the era but does not really play into the narrative. There are other references to efforts to attain statehood status and some of the questions about what that might bring.
Despite the research that backgrounds “Homestead,” there are aspects of the depicted homesteading life that seem at odds historically. While most homestead women at the time were intimately involved in the work of clearing, building and homemaking in every sense of the word, Marie’s role was limited to conventional duties of cooking and cleaning — and soon, childbearing. The meals mentioned seem to consist entirely of oatmeal, canned beans, canned hash and other canned goods. The couple didn’t plant a garden or harvest from the land. There is one brief, failed effort by Lawrence to hunt a moose, and Marie only accidentally discovers some salmon in a creek. Perhaps this was all part of the author’s intent to show Lawrence’s controlling and usually clueless character, but it seems unusual and a poor representation of pioneer women of the time.
The typical animals readers might expect to find in a book about Alaska appear. There are resident eagles, a bear — and a bear mauling — a wolverine digging at a gravesite, wolves running past the outhouse and scavenging a kill, and two bull moose with interlocked antlers fighting. Although these are all well depicted, they perpetuate an Alaska mythology regarding the abundance and fierceness of large Alaska animals. Where are the chickadees and golden-crowned sparrows?
Late in the book Moustakis introduces two new characters the homestead couple meet at the Knik bar. These are identified as Shem Pete and his son Billy Pete. These fictional characters are closely based on real, historic Dena’ina people; Shem Pete was a very significant tradition bearer, historian, storyteller and expert in geography and place names. Moustakis has employed the pair in her effort to show that the land homesteaded by Lawrence and Marie was not “empty;” it was Dena’ina land taken by the federal government and redistributed to settlers. That’s a good point to make, but some may question the insertion of well-known and culturally revered figures into a work of fiction. Fictional local Natives might have served the same purpose and avoided possibly-troublesome representations.
As we get farther away from territorial days and the lives of pioneer Alaskans, historical fiction can draw readers into that world, complete with emotional attachments to the lives of our forebears. “Homestead” is a valuable contribution to understanding our not-so-distant but fading past.