Sustainable Living

by Elsa Nekola


In Sustainable Living, the backwoods and small towns of the upper Midwest are places not to run from, but to return, to seek refuge, and to discover unsettling truths.

In “Meat Raffle,” a woman returns to the carp fishing village where she grew up, only to discover that her widowed mother has found happiness with a decades-younger man. In the aftermath of trauma, “Oktoberfest” finds a teenage girl caught between domestic duties and the pull of the natural world. In “White Birch Winter,” an aimless woman becomes a caretaker for her mother’s elderly ex-husband, an artistic recluse who is resistant to her efforts.

The women in these stories are tied to the land they inhabit, coming of age on rivers and lakes, among hunters and fishermen, dependent on tourist economies to make a living. Their desires are stifled by harsh climates, poverty, and difficult family relationships; what unites these characters is their quest to sustain themselves and a longing for connection—sometimes found in unexpected people and places.


“Elsa Nekola’s masterful short story collection, Sustainable Living, reveals the lives of northern lakeside communities after the summer people have gone home. In an area hit hard by decades of economic downturns, the harsh, beautiful northern winter becomes as much a character as the tough, resourceful people who, in Nekola’s hands, find ways not only to survive but to make meaningful lives. These vivid stories bring to life a region too often overlooked in our national conversation.”

– Ladette Randolph, editor-in-chief of Ploughshares and author of four books of fiction, including the forthcoming novel Private Way

“How hard I fell for these quiet, crushing, gorgeous stories of heartbreak and loneliness, of resiliency and ferocity, of north woods and wildness and lake water and love. I fell for the landscapes, and the houses, and for the characters, whose hungers I felt acutely in my own body, and who I found myself rooting for, fiercely, despite the odds. This book reminded me of what the very best fiction can do–bring us up close to the bruise of being human, shine a light there, and let us choose, time and time again, to love.”

– Robin MacArthur, author of Half Wild: Stories and Heart Spring Mountain

“Elsa Nekola is a wizard of the north woods. In a landscape of punishing beauty, her characters struggle to find their place. Their journeys towards and away from towns that are both intimate and isolating will resonate with anyone who has ever felt simultaneously like a local and a foreigner.”

– Caitlin Horrocks, author of Life Among the Terranauts and The Vexations

Filled with stunning beauty and compassion, these stories of small town and rural life lingered with me long after reading them. Elsa Nekola writes with a deep understanding of people in northern Wisconsin and the long winters they endure on a gorgeous landscape. This is a world that is rarely rendered in print and never done as well. I loved this book.”

– Chris Offutt, author of The Killing Hills


Sustainable Living is a winner of the Spokane Prize for fiction. It can be pre-ordered here.