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 a...