Living close to the bone in modern Alaska: A review of Bear Down, Bear North

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Bear Down, Bear North
Melinda Moustakis
144 pages, softcover: $24.95.
University of Georgia Press, September.

Bear Down, Bear North plunges its reader deep into tangled relations and beautiful places. This small craft of 13 linked stories holds everything necessary to survive the frigid Alaskan waters. Washington writer Melinda Moustakis works words attentively and playfully, slipping like a skater among her subjects, whether describing frenzied salmon spawning in the Kenai River or rowdy children rescuing a bird from a privy.

The first story recounts in fewer than 150 words how, on the night of the narrator's conception, her father shot a moose "through the eye, through the skull and brain and bone, through to the other side." "Do something to deserve us," the narrator pleads -- the "us" left intentionally vague: Is it the narrator's parents, or is it the prey itself?

In these stories, words cut ears, while fishhooks cut lips. Lures on a mannequin in a doctor's office mark wounds to the body. Fisherwomen fight for their lives; when the line is in the water, anything can happen. When Ma's fishing, says her daughter, "She could have a skate or shark or a record-breaking halibut as wide as an ice floe. ... It could be nothing. Junk. A snag. But I know that no matter what Ma reels in, it will mean what she needs it to mean, for her and for me."

Beauty shares a berth with death. Blood pools from a whale hauled ashore, and Ma says, "God is more of a whale than a man." Crossing Chinitna Bay, "a humpback shoots out of the water, twisting in the air, white fins raised to the sky, and back slamming into the water." Ma fingers its belly as it rolls in the water. "Touch your eye," she tells her daughter. "That's what it feels like."

Bear Down, Bear North, the author's debut, won the 2010 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, described as "an important proving ground for writers." Moustakis' stories are proven on a human field; they offer tools for living in an unbalanced world. One narrator, fishing with her brother, realizes, "For every story he tells, you think there's another one bubbling under the surface. He has stories about working on the slope in Prudhoe Bay, the circumpolar sun, as tall as a mountain, skating on the horizon, circling and circling. ... You realized, a while back, that all his stories were about survival." This author understands how intensely everything wants to survive, and she also knows how much that survival costs.

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