26th Sep 2011
Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories by Melinda Moustakis
Alaska; more than just White Fang and ‘I can see Russia from my house’. Bear Down, Bear North is a beautiful collection of interlinked short stories, showing landscapes as ruggedly sparse as the often bleak but still lyrical prose, where people eat unspecified tins or starve until the next moose wanders past their door, and the secret world of fishing becomes poetry in motion.
Well-deserved winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, this is the début collection of Alaskan Melinda Moustakis, whose family comes from a history of homesteading. The fascinating law, a legacy of pioneers, allowed people to claim a certain amount of land as their own so long as they worked it, and was finally discontinued in Alaska in 1986.
Showing a side of life that expects toughness and survival from the outset, the stories follow families through three generations of fishermen, trappers, and homesteaders trying to scratch out a living in a wild, cold and unforgiving territory, where the halibut is king, and one good moonlit night on the homemade cranberry lick can get you through a winter with four hours of sunlight a day.
The history of Alaska, and with it the United States, is embedded in these people’s stories; grandpa’s grandpa dragged his precious stove across the tundra in 1875; the memory of Korea still hovers over Fox, who beats his children with a belt buckle and built his outhouse to be warmer than his log cabin.
I fell in love with this book from the first page, the short short story, Trigger, and the first line:
“You were conceived on a hunting stand, they say.
Which means: we had no other place.”
Just gorgeous, reminiscent of Hemingway in its exquisite brevity.
Every character, no matter how rotten or decrepit, leaps like a salmon from the page and you can feel the cold desperate winters; this book is perfect for the fireside. From alcoholic fishermen stabbing themselves in the chest to the desolate description of an abusive parent and their effect on a family of half-feral children, stealing from the dead to survive, the relationships that Moustakis describes are all at once the saddest, but most real you’ll ever read.
The book touches onto that bit of human nature that just gets on with it, that survives, no matter how hard or harsh the surroundings, and the sense of place and how the landscape anchors its people in the novel gets you right in the chest. You can feel Moustakis’ knowledge and love for her state emitting from every well chosen word. I cannot wait to read more of what she produces; this is one writer worth watching.
Rating: Full marks. A remarkable read that won’t leave you quickly. 5/5
Recommended for: It’s very very short, but a book group would devour it. This would make a great stocking filler for friends, anyone who loves short stories, and anyone who loves good writing.
Recommended reading: To be honest, I’ve never read anything like this. Annie Proulx is the closest I could think of, though I also would recommend Little Altars Everywhere by Rebecca Wells if you enjoy the short interlinked stories format.
For a really good history of early settlements in the US from a woman’s point of view, I’m currently enjoying Sally Denton’s Faith and Betrayal: A Pioneer Woman’s Passage in the American West, and always recommend the work of historian Ruth B Moynihan.