In a year filled with more than a few bleak, strong debut anthologies with a guiding location—Miroslav Penkov’s East Of The West or Frank Bill’s Crimes In Southern Indiana fit the bill—Melinda Moustakis’ debut collection, Bear Down Bear North: Alaska Stories might be the strongest of them all. A series of linked stories set around the homesteads and rural cabins of Anchorage, Alaska, this slim volume delivers a powerful look into the lives of three generations and how an unforgiving environment wears them down as they grow.
The central family begins with Fox and Polar Bear, the patriarch and matriarch of the oldest generation, appropriately only referred to by animal names. The lives of their children form the bulk of the collection. “Point MacKenzie” shifts the point of view among the children in the wake of a small plane crash near the family’s cabin. Polar Bear deals with another pregnancy by scavenging the plane, while Ben and J.J. sign with their deaf brother Rias, and eldest sister Colleen looks after youngest sibling Kitty. Their cousins Jack and Gracie form the other focus of the collection, constantly fishing and never talking about their emblematic drinking or the marital problems that consume their families.
The titular object of “The Mannequin In Soldotna“ is a dummy littered with fishing lures. Every time an unplanned fishing incident occurs and the doctors remove a hook from a man’s back, hand, or even an eye, they place it on the mannequin in the corresponding injury location, creating a permanently scarred representation of accrued accidents. Moustakis bends back and forth from the doctors tending to the injured to brief, brutish summaries of the accidents on the Kenai River. Fishing isn’t going to stop, but at some point, a daily activity of survival and entertainment will hurt.
Moustakis finds a way to make the typical story format of swinging back and forth from present to past seem inventive. “The Last Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show” uses section headings taken from lumberjack events—“Single Buck,” “Tree Climb”—only seen on ESPN’s Great Outdoor Games, while “This One Isn’t Going To Be Afraid” uses body parts as headings while Colleen’s daughter narrates the history of her family through her mother’s features. Darkly comic moments such as when the children save an eaglet from the putrid depths of an outhouse in “Us Kids” lighten the collection like the precious few hours of sunlight in winter.
This isn’t the Alaska of Jack London, a land of fervent change and possibility. Kitty’s daughter Ruby, the dog-sitter in “Some Other Animal,” finds Alaskan Malamutes distant and difficult to manage, but humans are alone with their problems. Moustakis wisely avoids painting Alaska as a frontier to be discovered. Instead, she creates infinite and unflinching wilderness, families reduced to animal instinct fighting to survive even as they perpetuate the cycles they struggle to break. Each story burrows deeper into the families, creating stronger links, binding the stories together in a powerful, cohesive structure that gleans new details at every turn and makes them feel valuable. Bear Down Bear North deservedly received a Flannery O’Connor Award; Moustakis shares O’Connor’s astute character observations and an ability to construct regional values. This is a memorable debut for its conviction, as unforgiving in its portraits as the environment Moustakis finds both beautiful and destructive.