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
In reading fiction, I sometimes come to love the main character, and in nonfiction, I often find the author interesting and inspiring. But rarely have I loved an author of nonfiction, right from the opening pages. Until Heather Lende. She’s principled, funny, wise, compassionate, and brave. She lives in Haines, a small town in Alaska surrounded by mountains, woods, and water, and in her fourth book, “Of Bears and Ballots,” published this year, she describes her three-year term on the town assembly, a six-member board. I found myself drawing frequent parallels between the small-town politics and workings of local government of Haines and those of Harvard. Her voice is so honest and her tone so friendly that I feel as though I’m her confidante, and I can’t imagine calling her anything but Heather. Read full review…
— Carlene Phillips, Harvard Press
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. Read full review…
— Pamela Miller, Star Tribune
Lende’s first books are grounded in character and setting, but in “Of Bears and Ballots,” Lende crafts a plot-driven, real-life drama that could be called “Ms. Lende Goes to Haines.”
“The structure of the book is local politics and in general how we govern ourselves, and in a small town,” Lende said in a phone interview from her Haines home. “The specific small town happens to be Haines and the person on the assembly happens to be me.”
Lower 48 reviewers expecting a warm hearted book about life in a small fishing and tourist town will get that, but they’ll also probably wind up using words like “direct,” “honest” and “unflinching.” Through her own experience surviving a recall attempt in her first year on the Haines Borough Assembly, Lende exposes a truth known by most longtime residents of small towns: some people can be petty, mean and cruel. Read full review…
— Michael Armstrong, Homer News
With delicious humor and the more frustrating times well cloaked, (Lende) recounts her three years in office. Of Bears and Ballots boldly names real people and chronicles disputes over local concerns, funding requests granted or denied, how to resolve conflicting harbor extension plans, and the wastewater or library issues. A small town reduces commuting to about zero time, allowing Lende to keep a finger in many pies, daily walks on the beach, long cycle rides, and time to write her fourth book.
Her heart is generous, her ear keen, as she writes about the people of Haines, who are like everyone’s neighbor in their own home town. The book is a treat for everyone keen to see how being closely involved in a community makes life a joy as well being at times vexing and worrisome. She is a splendid writer showing to all who are unsure how every voice counts.
— Seattle Book Review, 5 Stars
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.
In an age of political clannishness, Lende (If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name, 2005) shows that even tiny Haines, Alaska (population fewer than 2,000 souls) is not immune to party divisions. In 2016, Lende won a three-year term as a town assemblywoman. New to politics, she wanted to serve her community. From learning Robert’s Rules of Order to navigating disputes about the construction of a new harbor for fishing boats, Lende let her love for her fellow citizens be her north star. Her characterizations of other assembly members and of her neighbors bring the struggle to reconcile disparate viewpoints to life. When adversaries petitioned to have Lende and two fellow assembly members recalled, her faith in her fellow citizens was put to the test. As the reader follows her soul-searching perseverance, a heartwarming realization of our common humanity and of our struggles to understand and live with each other shines through. This is, above all, an uplifting story of democracy at work in a far-flung, beautiful part of the U.S.
— Caren Nichter
“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