Alexandria, VA – Review: Of Bears and Ballots
Author: Heather Lende
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Reviewed by: Ralph Peluso, Literary Editor
Zebra Rating: 5 Stripes
In 2015, a brash political outsider stormed onto the national political scene. His irreverent policy statements resonated and he was swept into the Oval office. That same year, thousands of women across America, inspired by what they were witnessing, stepped into the political fray. They won elections and then took an active role in helping shape the future of the country, their states, or their small town. Heather Lende is one of those women.
Haines, Alaska, a town of about 1,700 people, is literally at the end of the trail as described by its Tlingit name. Nearly everyone there knows Heather Lende. She is the long-standing obituary writer for the local newspaper. Her goal in that role is to find the good to write about everyone as they have reached their trail’s end. As a result, Heather has abundant and firm community roots.
Heather found out quickly that her familiarity did not matter in politics. In small towns like Haines, political views can divide families and friends. Her first year in office was a wild ride, filled with emotional upswings and plenty of difficulties. Lende became the target of a vicious whisper campaign and a recall attempt. Through that process, she found courage and her political voice to survive and thrive. And to protect the investment donors made toward her campaign, a whopping $1,000.
“Politics at the local level is very personal,” she says. “What may be seen as a character asset one day is a landmine the next?” She attributes this dichotomy to the influence of social media. “Few (voters) do their own independent research.”
After surviving the recall, Heather’s vocalized and voted for positions remained true to her principles. In one nerve-racking personal dilemma, Heather voted against hiring her daughter’s good friend as town manager. Her stance created family business difficulties by alienating customers of the hardware store she and her husband owned.
More so than large cities, small towns see community issues as black or white with very few grey areas. Heather quickly caught on that Alaska-type issues from bear-proof trash cans to outhouse management are easy. Issues that involve higher spending or are tied to broader national issues are more polarizing. I asked Heather about the trickle-down theory of political meanness. Although recall attempts were soundly defeated, she wondered if national politics had floated up into Haines. Heather’s advice to those getting into politics is, “Be yourself.” Regardless of the topic, votes will strain relationships.
Heather Lende and her husband Chip have five adult children and nine grandchildren. Heather is a hospice, library, and radio station volunteer. In 2021, Heather was appointed the two-year term as Alaska State Writer Laureate, a great honor. This prestigious appointment recognizes a writer’s contributions to the Alaskan quality of life. She has written over four hundred obituaries for the Chilkat Valley News and several other books: Find the Good, Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs, and her NY Times bestseller, If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name.
Of Bears and Ballots is a colorful memoir of a woman seeking and winning office on her initial try. Heather’s work reads like an entertaining novel, with colorful, down-to-earth, and unique home-grown characters. She captures the enormity of Alaska’s beauty, natural resources, and off-the-beaten-path ruggedness. Readers learn it takes strong families, friends, and relationships to survive in Alaska. Haines is no place for the meek either in life or in politics. An entertaining read for all: Five Zebra Strips
Reading, Writing and Ralph schedule for April
April 8: Don Gibson’s Two Twists of Fate is the story of seniors who meet in a retirement community and fall in love, but a decade later tragedy strikes. It’s a tale of the passion and devastation of a late in life romance.