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  • Telling Tales
  • Jeff Wallace (bio)
Bear Down, Bear North:Alaska Stories. Melinda Moustakis. University of Georgia Press. 176 pages; cloth, $24.95; paper, $18.95; eBook, $18.95.

Often when reading minimalist literature, I'm struck by the bleakness of the world the characters inhabit. With every detail so neatly drawn, with every line so tightly screwed, there's little room for warmth. And when light does find its way through, it is always contained. This is even more troubling in authors who tackle rural landscapes while being minimalists. The natural world doesn't leave a lot of room for hope to begin with, and when drawn so tautly, there is even less hope. But Melinda Moustakis's debut collection Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories, while being superbly crafted and trimmed to the nub, finds hope.

Moustakis drops us dead into the middle of what most Americans would consider the last American frontier: Alaska. And while the stories all do take place within the state, the place is secondary to the frontier in which Moustakis wishes to drop us. The collection is about storytelling. It is about how to tell stories, why stories must be told, and to what lengths an author must go in order to tell a story truthfully.

The truth contained within the collection is that it is necessary to speak, to tell, in order to survive in any world, never minding the added complexity of surviving in a world where life is never a given thing. In "Some Other Animal," we are shown the character Ruby, who faces starvation (both emotional and physical) because of her own sense of pride and honor:

She opens up every cupboard and scans the empty shelves for a hidden can of noodles. Then she moves the chair in, stands on it for a closer look at the bareness, the stray macaroni, the cracker crumbs, the dust of flour and spices. She should have borrowed the peanut butter. She paces the four corners of the kitchen, trying to ignore the animal noises coming from her gut, worry wrestling with hunger. "Stop it," she says to her stomach.

It is only in Ruby's telling of her misdeeds (losing one of the dogs she has been hired to care for and the waiting patiently for an answer from the dog itself) that she has hope of redemption.

The stories that are told between the characters often exist in a shadowy and confusing area of half-truths. Again, this type of telling is necessary for these characters' survival and strength. In "This One Isn't Going to Be Afraid," we are shown Colleen, who tells one of her stories of survival:

She'll say, "I got mauled by a grizzly in Alaska.. And they believe her...."Actually, it was an accident. I snagged my shoulder on a metal spring while hiding under my bed.. They chuckle with relief. "Man, you had me going.. Kids and a game of hide-and-seek. But they don't ask what she was hiding from. The truth is there are grizzlies and there are fists and there are bottles and belts. There are choices, play dead or hide.

Colleen, like the other characters, cannot and will not play dead. They hide in their stories. It is in this hiding, running, and, above all, telling, that hope is created.

Moustakis creates a collection which operates in a realm between the short story cycle and the more traditional standard collection. The slight collection (only 157 pages) contains within it 13 distinct stories, some linked by familial ties, some not. The stories are told in a myriad of points of view. Some stories, such as "Point Mackenzie," are told from very specific, but multiple, third-person close perspectives. The story "Us Kids" is told from the plural first-person point of view. Some are even more fragmented—not based around characters but around body parts, animals, or even small flash fictions. The best of the stories are even told from the difficult but compelling second-person perspective.

Why this multitude of perspectives? It would be easy to say that this is what workshop teaches writers...


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