Homestead: A Novel
“Melinda Moustakis’ arrestingly vivid and richly realized new novel Homestead depicts the interior lives of two Alaskan homesteaders in the 1950s so convincingly that it often reads less like fiction than a newly unearthed collective frontier memoir.”
The Homestead Act of 1862, passed in the absence of Southern senators in the first year after secession to distribute 160-acre parcels of government-owned land to qualified claimants, proved instrumental in the so-called settling of America’s Great Plains. For little more than a filing fee and five years of prescribed “improvements,” more than 1.5 million families—some U.S.-born, some foreign-born, nearly all of them white—took ownership of 246 million acres of western land over the next 70 years, accounting for close to 10% of the entire continental United States.
This mass land transfer yielded the durable American archetype of the pioneer homesteader, preserved memorably in a fairly sizable literary genre of homesteader/pioneer fiction. Perhaps the greatest of all homesteader novels is Knut Hamsun’s Nobel Prize-winning Growth of the Soil (1920), which takes place entirely in rural Norway.
But much great homesteading fiction has risen from American soil as well, including Willa Cather’s indelible Prairie Trilogy (1913–18); O.E. Rolvaag’s harrowing Norwegian American prairie saga Giants in the Earth (1924); and more recently, Ivan Doig’s glorious Dancing at the Rascal Fair (1987). Perhaps the most widely read and beloved American homesteading story of all is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series (1932–43), which occupies an indeterminate space somewhere between memoir and novel.
Homesteading came to the Alaskan territory in 1898 under the expansionist auspices of William McKinley. Melinda Moustakis’ arrestingly vivid and richly realized new novel Homestead depicts the interior lives of two Alaskan homesteaders in the 1950s so convincingly that it often reads less like fiction than a newly unearthed collective frontier memoir.
Set in the years just before and after Alaska’s arrival as the U.S.’s 49th state, Homestead portrays the marriage of two near strangers: Lawrence, an intensely private and mostly non-verbal Minnesotan and Korean war veteran who has moved north to take possession of his claim; and Marie, who has followed her sister Sheila to Alaska in the hope of finding a permanent home far away from their native Texas. She agrees to marry Lawrence shortly after he encounters her in an Anchorage Moose Lodge and slips her a scrap of paper with the words “150 ACRES” and says, “Why don’t we get married?”
What follows is a lurch into marriage and isolated coupledom for two people largely ill-prepared for what awaits them. They spend the first year together sleeping in a bus on their remote and undeveloped land. Occasional visits with Sheila and her well-meaning but profligate husband, Sly, provide brief respite from their solitude, but Marie and Lawrence mostly find themselves alone together. Marie desperately tries to bridge the distance between them (“If only she could pry into Lawrence, his thoughts of her”), and puzzles over Lawrence’s steadfast, unspoken insistence on keeping her at arm’s length.
With an unerring eye for the small detail and a masterful way of rendering the rough-hewn Alaskan landscape with a few precise, short sentences, Moustakis envelops readers in the world that Lawrence and Marie plunge themselves into, as well as the home they struggle to fashion in awkward and halting attempts at an intimacy that mostly eludes them.
Moustakis moves with breathtaking fluidity between the homesteaders’ exterior and interior worlds as on one April night several months into Marie’s pregnancy: “Thaw and melt, and the cold trickle beneath the snow, the dripping from the eaves of the roof, and at night, the setting of the freeze, the mornings of ice and slick, a wound that heals in the night and breaks your neck. Marie, her belly growing, her swollen feet still in her sight, and the sickness has become hunger, and she eats wet cornmeal, flour in spoonfuls, pilot bread, the crumbs in the sheets, under her pillow . . . Lawrence chops firewood, at least he has this, but her, with her belly, the slow walk, the fear of slipping on the ice, what can she do?”
Marie maintains both a spirited determination to make a go of things with Lawrence, and to assert an equal legal claim to the land she is helping him improve and carrying the burden of populating with children. Sometimes paragraph-by-paragraph perspective shifts keep readers deeply engaged with each homesteader’s troubled state of mind.
Lawrence, meanwhile, remains trapped within himself, haunted by his deficient war record and fear that the inchoate stirrings of love and desire Marie’s ongoing presence provokes will cause him to reveal too much of himself. One night during Marie’s first pregnancy, as Lawrence becomes worried that she has been gone to the outhouse too long, Moustakis captures his interior dialogue with remarkably revealing precision: “If he gives her everything she asks, she will have everything of him. He will not know the end or the beginning, in the way he does not have the map for the land, the drawn lines, or stakes driven at the edges.”
Such peeks into Lawrence’s soul aside, Homestead remains mostly Marie’s book. The novel’s infrequent but resonant moments of joy are mostly hers. Particularly sweet are the months Lawrence’s father Joseph spends on the homestead helping to build the cabin. The easy and durable kinship Marie and Joseph establish gives the book many of its lightest and most memorable moments and provides a welcome balm to the comparatively brittle interplay between husband and wife.
While Lawrence and Marie occasionally share warm and satisfying sexual encounters, their physical relationship is far more often frustrated and strained. As such it’s easy to imagine their frontier marriage evolving into something like the hard-won truce and frontier partnership of Ivan Doig’s cobbled-together parentage of widowed father and grandmother in This House of Sky.
Through subtle but not disorienting strokes, Moustakis updates the homestead novel with Marie’s growing assertiveness and insistence on becoming a named patent holder in the couple’s frontier stake, which emerges as a central issue and conflict in the book. Lawrence also experiences a memorable encounter with an indigenous man named Shem who recalls signs in stores in Anchorage saying, “NO DOGS OR NATIVES” and calls into question the U.S. government’s right to commandeer 100 million acres of indigenous Alaskan land and parcel it out to white settlers. “Why would I want Alaska to be one of your states?” Shem asks.
In keeping with Homestead’s determination to keep faith with its characters and its times, Lawrence “nods, trying to grasp what he can,” and resolves to devote more thought to what it means to claim land that might not be his government’s to give. Still it remains a question he asks but does not answer, as title to the land remains the defining, uniting, and dividing feature of his and Marie’s life.