Of Bears and Ballots
All politics is local so it’s said. All local politics is hard, but as Heather Lende shows us in of Bears and Ballots, nothing worth doing is supposed to be easy. Her fights and conflagrations as a member of the Haines, Alaska Borough Assembly are a perfect reflection of our national politics, and give us a good reason for hope. People are selfish and unreasonable and pushy and frightened and stupid. And they are thoughtful and brave and generous and loyal and kind. They all come to meetings and they always have, and with the help of the few souls we elect to sit at the front of the room and take the heat we, work things out and the world rolls on. If you haven’t served on a local board or commission you haven’t lived. If you have served and lived through it, Heather Lende feels your pain, and will have you laughing at hers. Sometimes a first rate writer also happens to be a first rate human being. I love when that happens.
– Tom Bodett, Humorist, Author and former chair of the Selectboard of Dummerston, Vermont
When Heather Lende (If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name; Find the Good) decides to run for a borough assembly seat in her hometown of Haines, Alaska, she jumps into local politics with the same delightful zest and enthusiasm that characterize her writing in Of Bears and Ballots. She’s lived in this small town for almost 30 years, she’s written three popular books about it. She knows most of the 1,600 residents and has written obituaries about her friends and neighbors for the local paper since 1997. Her goal is to be a politician who says “Why not? We can try that. Let’s listen.”
Unfortunately, her foray into small-town government coincides with the election of Donald Trump and the virulent political divisions that have spread across the country–even affecting a spot as idyllic as Haines appears to be. “Some people,” Lende says, “can create a conflict out of anything,” and conflicts both large and small begin to rock her community. Development and environmental concerns become viciously at odds, and Lende discovers that people she’s known and liked for years now view her as a liberal politician who ought to be recalled from office. With piercing candor and remarkable good humor, Lende pulls away any sentimental veil that might obscure the realities of small-town politics.
“Democracy! It’s glorious chaos,” the owner of the local paper observes. It’s testimony to Lende’s special gift that, in spite of the pain and sadness involved in her political adventure, she leaves her readers with that same conclusion.
In 2016, Lende (If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name) was elected to the assembly of Haines, AK, a town in the southeastern part of the state accessible from the mainland via boat or plane. Here, she discusses the issues before the assembly, including harbor renovations, appointing a town manager, recreational permits, and assigning house numbers. Naturally, the town’s strong personalities make appearances. Additionally, the author reflects on her own mistakes as an assembly member and the lessons learned during her tenure. Descriptions of municipal matters could be dry and boring, but Lende’s vivid descriptions, good-natured humor, and adoration for her quirky neighbors further energize this engaging tale. Throughout, Lende emphasizes the need for bipartisanship, as she knows everyone in her community personally and does not want to lose friendships over politics. When several of the politically conservative members of the town attempt to recall Lende and two of her fellow assembly members, she reconsiders her dedication to the community, the assembly, and her friendships. VERDICT A heartfelt ode to civil service. Recommended for readers interested in government, civil service, and small-town life.
“Heather Lende has captured the essence of small-town governing in a community as politically divided as our nation is today. She reminds us that public service is hard, but also meaningful.”
—Fran Ulmer, former Lieutenant Governor of Alaska
“Citizenship—real, active citizenship of the kind we badly need—is rewarding in a profound way; hopefully this book will inspire people to work with and for their neighbors in all kinds of ways!”
— Bill McKibben, author of Falter
“This book is a fine story—told with compassion, wisdom and wit—about democracy, community, and decency in small-town America, and how to save the best of who we are. It’s medicine for the soul. I vote for Heather Lende.”
—Kim Heacox, author of John Muir and the Ice that Started a Fire
“Heather Lende’s brave, bighearted book about her run for local office fairly bursts with affection for her place and its people. By the end you’ll be torn between wanting to move to Haines, Alaska, and wanting Lende to take the helm of your home town.”
—Melody Warnick author of This Is Where You Belong
“An uplifting reminder that democracy works in America. While its setting is an extraordinary landscape of mountains, glaciers and the waters of Lynn Canal, the political scene and the cast of characters Lende captures will find resonance in every corner of America.”
—Bruce Botelho, former Mayor of Juneau, Alaska