Of Bears and Ballots
by Heather Lende; Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (274 pages, $25.95)
In this fraught, bewildering American era, Heather Lende's latest memoir is a blessed balm.
Lende, who has written three previous books about her life in the wildly beautiful, isolated, eclectic town of Haines, Alaska, here focuses on her time as a Haines Borough assembly member. In that role, she weighed in on harbor management, cruise ship rules, dirt-road names, senior citizen housing upkeep, dump cleanup, problem grizzlies and a host of other colorful issues that, while unique to Alaska, parallel the problems wrestled with in every American town, every day, often invisibly because local papers like the one Lende has written for have died off.
Lende loved this work, despite its often tense or tedious nature. She knew everyone in her small town, an asset at times, but an impediment when controversial issues came up for a vote and many of her neighbors became her angry adversaries.
Alaska has always served as a stark model of the American divides between developers and environmentalists, fierce individualists and earnest, educated progressives focused on the common good. That rift has grown deeper there, as it has in all of America, in the wake of President Donald Trump's 2016 election, which Lende tells us inspired this book.
Yet she, like too few others in our indignant age, has a strong, calm respect for engaged individuals from all walks, and mapped for herself a middle ground, cutting through the predictable among Trump admirers and liberals horrified by his gleeful demagoguery to try to understand the roots of both sides' anger and passion.
She reminded herself to "never speak in absolutes" and to be wary of the rants of both those on the far right and the far left. That approach served her well as she faced a bitter recall attempt, and even more so as an American writer trying to find the silver lining in this time of toxic division.
Lende is a graceful and endearing writer, recapitulating the kind of wily, folksy wit and wisdom we associate with, say, Mark Twain, so much more powerful than the predictable "gotcha" snark of our social media age. For instance, she is able to teach us about the proud, heartbreaking First Nations history of her region and how it resonates every moment in the modern era, without being righteous or nostalgic. She also chronicles painful issues like suicide and child sexual abuse and their impact on her beloved town.
Most of all, Lende's account resonates for its respect for every Haines resident who cares enough to show up at assembly meetings or her house to advocate, campaign or complain — even those like "Big Don," the formidable angry man who both ran the attempt to kick her out of office and greeted her courteously in public places. Before every assembly meeting, she jotted, "Be kind, be brave, be thankful" atop her notes, reminding herself to listen respectfully to each speaker and to consider the full story of their arguments and complaints.
What a blessing Lende's view of democracy, which she calls "glorious chaos," is in this dark era. "So much depends on people of good will, and they are everywhere," she writes. She reminds us about the dreams we share, especially now, as we cry for, and struggle to save, our beloved country.