Saturday, October 09, 2021

Of Bears and Ballots: An Alaskan Adventure in Small-Town Politics - Heather Lende


Heather Lende lives in one of those little towns where it seems like sooner or later just about everyone who wants to will eventually hold some kind of political office. For Lende, that would turn out to be a position on the Haines, Alaska, town assembly. Haines sits in the extreme southeast part of Alaska, and is a place pretty much only accessible by plane, boat or ferry since the only road out of town goes northward toward the Yukon and terminates in Haines. Because of that, everyone in Haines knows everyone else in Haines…and pretty much everything about them and their families. But as Heather Lende would find out, politics in such a small, insulated community can be a little tricky. And in Of Bears and Ballots: An Alaskan Adventure in Small-Town Politics, she tells us all about it.


Haines may be small, but its citizens take politics very seriously, and as in the rest of the country these days, political disagreements are all too often allowed to end old friendships and affect family relationships. Lende, who rather easily wins election to the Haines assembly,  barely settles into her new chair before she and two other of the more liberal representatives on the assembly become the targets of a recall petition and election. Much of Of Bears and Ballots recounts the emotional rollercoaster the author rides during that long, drawn out process, a process during which she feels betrayed by some of her closest and oldest friends and their families. That none of the three officeholders are successfully recalled is small compensation for the emotional scars Lende is left with and everything she suffers along the way.


While the portion of the book dedicated to the recall election is interesting, the real fun in Of Bears and Ballots comes from Lende’s description of daily life in a place like Haines, Alaska. What she has to say about the day-to-day goings-on that make a little town like Haines click is so intriguing that now I want to take a look at two of her earlier books in which she does the same in much more detail: 2011’s Take Care of the Garden and the Dogs (which was her mother’s dying wish) and 2006’s If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name. 


All in all, and despite her rough start in local politics, Lende comes away from the experience feeling better about and more proud of her community than ever. I do have to admit, however,  that I was a little surprised that despite everything she says about being openminded, considering all sides of an argument, and simply listening during assembly meetings, Lende manages to fall into the same old trap that so many of us fall into these days when it comes to dissenting political views. On numerous occasions, she makes sweeping generalizations about her more conservative constituents and their national counterparts that are so naive that they made me smile (despite the fact that I know I often do the same to those who disagree with me).


For instance, apparently even in a town as isolated as Haines, Alaska, it is possible to exist in a bubble so tightly sealed that a reaction like this one is possible: 


“When I admitted to the Unitarians that at least two of my dear friends and many people I know and have hosted in my home voted for Trump, they gasped.”


I know I’m not supposed to find that funny, but it makes me smile…and this is one of the kindest generalizations that Lende makes about “Trump voters.” I won’t point out the more strongly worded ones, but there are something approaching a dozen of them that jumped out at me. Still, that lack of self-awareness is so especially common these days that it is easily forgiven in a book that was as much fun as Of Bears and Ballots.


Heather Lende

12 comments:

  1. Sounds like a fun read. Though I'd probably enjoy the daily life in Haines bits much more than the politics/election bits. :)

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    1. I think it's the everyday stuff that saves this one from being too gloomy to suit most readers right now, Lark.

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    2. Hey...your football team beat Alabama! That's so awesome. :D

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    3. 41-38, Lark. First lost for Alabama since 2019, and first time they were even playing from behind this season. They have been that good. Too bad that we lost our starting quarterback at the beginning of the season, but this new kid seems to be getting a little better every game, so the rest of the season is still promising.

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  2. I've read her three earlier books. It just so happened that I wrote about them all in one post, if you want to read it.
    https://lettersfromahillfarm.blogspot.com/2015/07/three-books-by-heather-lende.html
    Due to my aversion to politics I am not sure I could read this one.

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    1. Nan, thanks for the link...heading that way in a second.

      Most definitely, this one is about politics and how it all works in a town as small as this one. Even lots of the everyday life stuff is described in political terms or recounts conversations about what has been happening in that arena. But the little town is full of old timers and other longterm residents who are real characters, and I enjoyed that a lot...but I'm sure you know those characters better than me already.

      I grew up in a little town of just over 12,000 people and even that was so confining to me that I wanted out even before I finished high school. No secrets in towns of that size, no privacy, and lots of gossip. Couldn't take it.

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  3. I'm glad you enjoyed this one. I still have If You Lived Here You'd Know My Name sitting unread on my shelf. I do want to try her books.

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    1. She's not a fancy stylist or anything, and her style works pretty well for the small-town topics that she writes about. I found her to be very readable.

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  4. Yes, I've stopped reading several books because I got tired of the constant generalising when it comes to voters ie: people who voted for Brexit are.... I know we're all guilty of it to an extent but I do at least 'try' to keep an open mind and not let people's politics affect our friendship. I do actually like political books but impartial ones are as rare as hen's teeth.

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    1. It's really difficult to be impartial, or even pretend to be, but several times here I found myself thinking less of the author because she couldn't see how obvious her biases were to the reader, especially when she was already bordering on using a pontifical tone in the paragraph or section. But brushing that aside allowed me to enjoy what she had to say about the experience she more or less endured during her venture into local politics.

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  5. Small town life does have its compensations but they can also be very fraught places in which to live. It seems that Lende has attempted to address that.

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    1. She did, Dorothy. In many ways, because it all seemed so personal to her because she was so familiar with her allies and her challengers, it was even tougher than what happens to politicians on a larger stage.

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