Melinda Moustakis’ fiction is an expert tutorial in braiding a story’s environment with its characters’ paths, as much as it is an unveiling of how that braid is not a braid at all but an inseparability, place inextricable from human life. In her debut collection, Bear Down, Bear North, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award and also garnered a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 selection, that place was the Alaska wilderness across thirteen stories that intersected with survival, with the toughness an unpredictable environment requires, and with the vulnerability of surrendering to a landscape. Moustakis delves even deeper into the Alaskan terrain in her debut novel, Homestead, exploring the tension between taming and untaming, between human willpower and the will of a terrain, and between characters who seek both togetherness and solitude in a new-to-them place. The result is a luminous and fierce portrait of early marriage as a territory moves toward statehood.
Homestead follows Lawrence and Marie, two newcomers to Anchorage who marry within days of meeting one another and strike out into the Alaskan wilderness to stake a parcel of land they can claim as theirs. Their reasons differ: for Lawrence, this prospect poses a chance to claim not only a deed but a family life he’s long imagined could be his, particularly in the wake of serving in the Korean War. And for Marie, the possibilities ahead signify not only an impulsive opportunity but an entire new future, one where she can stretch beyond the expectations of what life might have provided her in the Texas town she’s left behind. Her sister, Sheila, and Sheila’s husband, Sly, live in Anchorage and form a cast of surrounding characters at the periphery of Lawrence and Marie’s ever-narrowing isolation as they try to build a future in a beautiful yet severe place. Moustakis tightens the novel’s timeframe to three years between 1956 and 1959, the trajectory of Lawrence and Marie’s new marriage and new environment keeping pace with Alaska’s path toward new statehood.
These parallel routes shape the novel’s narrative and explore the forgetting required of both personal and collective mythology—of a marriage, despite the secrets and betrayals between two people, and of a country fumbling toward owning and taming a landscape as a state. Though the novel takes place long after the era of manifest destiny, a legacy of dominion lingers across the novel’s intersecting paths. Lawrence promises to “claim what he is owed. And by the work of his hands this will all be his.” His desire for claiming comes up against Marie’s growing sense of self-empowerment, revealed to the reader in dense lyricism through alternating third-person points of view. Whereas Lawrence views the land as a clay malleable to his own shaping, Marie’s burgeoning self-ownership is often explored through the prism of the land itself, the “shadows of mountains beyond the dark line of the low and unseen water, and a stretch of dusky sky, a pale yellow and lavender, and a thick stir of clouds with sweeps of fire and fireweed, and who could say this was not meant for her?” The novel’s shifting perspective allows the reader to see what Lawrence and Marie can’t yet reveal or know about each other, and the push and pull of power—between husband and wife, between human and terrain, and between ownership and sovereignty in the looming codification of statehood—binds a tight backbone of tension as the novel spins these parallel pathways forward.
As in Bear Down, Bear North, Moustakis’ description of the Alaskan setting—from whorls of northern lights to the cherry wine that stains the characters’ mouths through the bitterest stretches of winter—is at once brutal and breathtaking, as is the handling of the losses and betrayals that Lawrence and Marie both face and enact. The examination of statehood, even sixty years ago, reflects the present day as much as the novel’s timeframe echoes manifest destiny one hundred years before, a throughline connecting colonization and mythmaking that sands over a bedrock of conflict. Lawrence and Marie build a similar bedrock between them, a narrative of their marriage that allows them to survive. In this way Homestead’s aims are intertwined, exploring how two people learn their way through a shared landscape and story while also interrogating the very construction of history, not only in a marriage, but in the long shadow of an American past cast always upon the present—what the very best historical fiction can do.
By Melinda Moustakis
Published February 28, 2023
Anne Valente is the author of two novels, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2016) and The Desert Sky Before Us (William Morrow, 2019), as well as the short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names, which won the 2014 Dzanc Prize. Her fiction appears in American Short Fiction, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review and The Chicago Tribune, and her essays appear in Guernica, Literary Hub, The Believer and The Washington Post. She lives in upstate New York where she teaches creative writing at Hamilton College.