1956, Alaska Territory, book review, coming-of-age narrative, historical fiction, homesteading, implausible characters, impulsive decisions, literary fiction, male stubbornness, marriage, Melinda Moustakis, self-assertion, statehood
Review: Homestead, by Melinda Moustakis
Flatiron, 2023. 256 pp. $28
In 1956, without even a proper map, Lawrence Beringer stakes claim to 150 acres in the Alaska Territory and is called a tenderfoot for his trouble. No surprise that shortly afterward, he sets eyes on Marie Kubala at a tavern and immediately asks her to marry him. She accepts.
What an arresting, unusual premise, which parallels the main characters’ surroundings. If marriage is a frontier, consider that the Alaska Territory has been lobbying the federal government to grant statehood. But just as Alaska’s residents can’t predict how that change will affect them, neither Lawrence nor Marie have a clue what lies in store, whether it concerns homesteading or each other.
Lawrence, son of a failed Minnesota farmer who has also failed at managing diners, is determined to succeed. Life has brought him nothing to call his own, but he’ll satisfy the requirements to prove his claim if it kills him.
A Korean War veteran in his midtwenties who received an early, honorable discharge under hazy circumstances, he carries a shameful secret from that experience. But he doesn’t talk about it—or anything—and probably smiles, oh, maybe once a month. However, he knows he wants a dozen children, or thinks he does. That’s a secret too, and, it seems, the reason he wishes to marry.
As for his bride, Marie’s Texas childhood was loveless except from her sister, Sheila, who lives in Anchorage with her husband. The girls’ mother left when they were young, and their grandmother, who took them in, gave them nothing but lectured them on the vast debt they owed her. Marie, visiting Alaska to see Sheila, jumps at the chance to escape. And Lawrence seems physically strong and capable in practical matters.
But her new husband shies away from sex or even affection (though he does make her pregnant rather soon), dislikes conversation, and shows no interest in Marie or her past. He also discourages questions, so that, even after a few months, she thinks she knows nothing about him.
Two flashpoints upset her. As she nears her time to give birth, she asks to do so in a hospital, and he refuses, saying they don’t have the money—only to dream, out loud, about buying costly farm equipment. He doesn’t dare reveal he shudders about being “trapped” in a building where she’s bleeding. (Tough luck, big guy.) Moreover, when Marie asks that when they prove the claim, her name goes on the deed too, Lawrence resents this mightily.
By making Lawrence over-the-top cold, nasty, and ungiving, Moustakis has set up a peculiar dynamic. Luckily, she doesn’t have him undergo an earthshaking (implausible) change. Nor has she written a female fantasy in which woman civilizes male savage and lives with him happily ever after.
Rather, Homestead shows how Marie summons up the courage to ask for what she wants and to push back when Lawrence refuses. I like those scenes, but the groundwork fails to convince me. Where did Marie get the emotional strength, growing up without love, abandoned by her mother and abused by her wicked grandmother? Maybe that’s the part that sounds like a fairytale setup, though focusing on Marie’s efforts and not their result is at least a fresh take.
But Lawrence is the weaker characterization, by far. I don’t see how he can be so self-absorbed, treat his wife like a tool, and act amazed when she resents it, unless he’s psychologically damaged. But he’s not; he’s simply stubborn and criminally obtuse. Moustakis harps on the Korean War trauma, but there’s no evidence he was warm and fuzzy before then.
Even more puzzling, when his father, Joseph, shows up to help build a cabin, you have to wonder whether the son is really somebody else’s child. Joseph’s a kindly, sensitive, generous person—my favorite character—and he tries gently to take his son in hand. Guess how far that goes.
Moustakis writes beautifully, even better without the occasional breathless, Proustian sentences that call attention to themselves and can be hard to follow. But she does render the toil and ingenuity that go into making a homestead with remarkable vividness and precision. I admire those sections and have never read anything like them.
Then there’s Alaska, whose natural beauty can sweep you away:
She should turn back, but above the ridge is a distant glow, as if from another, fuller moon. A soft tick, tick, tick crackles in her ears, the break of a radio. . . .As she crests the top, the air thickens, a charge runs up her spine and hums at the back of her skull, and the nightgown clings, molds to her body. A green blaze is twisting and roping in the sky, a witching spell threading through the stars and coming for her. Waves of light above and below and then all around, pulsing and pressing in on her throat.
Reading this description whetted my latent wish to see the aurora borealis before I die. But whether such passages alone can pull you through Homestead, I leave to you.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review.