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'Homestead' is a story about starting fresh, and the joys and trials of melding lives

Flatiron Books

When Lawrence Beringer walks into a Bureau of Land Management office in Alaska in 1956, he's determined to leave his old life behind.

A 27-year-old Minnesota native and Korean War veteran, Lawrence has moved to the territory and decided to claim 150 acres of land as a homestead, "where his children will call the years. Where he will cut the timber and till the ground and build a cabin of his own measure. He will claim what he is owed. And by the work of his hands this will all be his."

Lawrence's efforts to develop his homestead — and forget his troubled past — partially form the basis for Homestead, the debut novel from Alaska-born author Melinda Moustakis. It's a book that's as stark and beautiful as its icy setting.

Lawrence isn't the only person seeking a life change in Alaska. Marie Kubala, an 18-year-old woman from Conroe, Texas, has come north to visit her sister, Sheila, and brother-in-law, Sly, in Anchorage. It's there, at the Moose Lodge, where she notices Lawrence; before he leaves, he hands her a note that says, simply, "150 ACRES." The two agree to meet the following evening, and Lawrence proposes to her, saying, "You know what I have and what I got to offer."

Marie accepts, although she's perhaps unaware of the size of the family Lawrence wants: "Twelve of his own ... a good round number of mouths to feed who will learn to feed themselves, work the land, and one day carry him to his grave." It doesn't take long for Marie to become pregnant, and for her to realize that Lawrence is even more laconic and distant than she had realized. "What does he need her for?" she thinks. "Washing and cooking and carrying this child? Just so he's not alone? He'd be well as can be if he was."

When their son is stillborn, Marie breaks down, blaming Lawrence, who insisted on a home birth rather than one in an Anchorage hospital. The couple have been living in an old school bus on the homestead; Marie moves in with Sheila and Sly in their trailer, while Lawrence busies himself on the homestead, cutting trees for a cabin and preparing to plant a large alfalfa crop.

The two reconcile, but their relationship remains an uneasy one. Lawrence is wracked with trauma from his days in the war, at one point experiencing a horrific nightmare of "a field of paratroopers, guns at the ready, and he tripped and fell, and there was a small body, covered in blood and blackflies, so many he could not see the face, but he knew that this was his dead son." Marie, meanwhile, is dealing with her own bad memories of her childhood in Texas, and can't understand why Lawrence is unable, or unwilling, to console her following the loss of their child.

Things get better, then worse, then much worse, with a shocking climax toward the end of the novel. It's a chaotic moment that Moustakis portrays with a steady hand; throughout the book, she remains committed to a calm, clear-eyed realism that never falters, even as Lawrence and Marie are faced with challenges tied to the dramatic Alaskan landscape.

Homestead is a deeply interior novel by necessity: Lawrence is reticent by nature, and the characters frequently find themselves alone with their thoughts. There is dialogue in the novel, and it's unfailingly true to life; Moustakis particularly does a wonderful, understated job with Marie and Sheila's east Texas vocabulary and cadences. But she's equally adept at the silences that mark the characters' seemingly small moments, able to imbue the simplest of these — a character sitting on a tree stump with a cup of coffee, another swimming in a lake — with a quiet resonance. It's a technique that admirers of Marilynne Robinson and Alice Munro are bound to appreciate.

Moustakis clearly cares about Alaska — her previous book, the short story collection Bear Down, Bear North is also set there — and she evokes the late 1950s, when the territory was on the verge of becoming a state, with care and precision. Shem Pete, the real-life Denaʼina storyteller, is briefly a character in the book, and his appearance is a delight, grounding the novel in history and paying tribute to the Alaska Natives who lived there thousands of years before European and American colonialism.

Homestead is a beautiful novel, quiet as a snowfall, warm as a glowing wood stove. It's also a profound look at how we navigate one another, and what it means to reveal ourselves to the ones we care about — or as Marie thinks, "How much to be taken, and given, how much to be known, before calling this love, and will it be as sudden as a quiet hour?"

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.