Book Review: Of Bears and Ballots by Heather Lende
I was somewhat familiar - but had never read anything - by current Alaska State Writer Laureate Heather Lende when her publicist sent me a copy of her latest book, Of Bears and Ballots.
Lende lives in Haines. My understand of Haines consists of a two-hour stop in an 18-hour drive that ended in a dark, rainy wait for a late-running Alaska State ferry when I was driving my two dogs to our new home in Juneau. We never left the Haines ferry terminal parking lot.
Visiting Haines through Lende's prose confirmed my suspicions that is very much like my hometown in Southcentral Alaska. Haines and Seward are about the same size, both sit on a thin slip of land carved by glacier through granite mountains, populated by gigantic spruce, and nurtured by glittering deep turquoise waters. In both cities there is the tension between new people and old, those who have competing and mutually exclusive ideas about how to use resources, and issues that fester over generations.
We all wear multiple hats, so cocktail party small talk makes introducing the wedding coordinator/crab fisherman/Sunday school teacher/belly dancer to the dog musher/hair dresser/hockey coach/bartender a mouthful.
I know this world, and have great appreciation for how nimbly and kindly it is explored in Of Bears and Ballots. My own term on Seward's City Council did not include the drama of a recall effort, but it was traumatic. Most all those I served with are gone, either under the ground or out-of-state, but they are still with me. The battle wounds scared and moments of solidarity tempered my resolve.
And, like Lende expresses, relationships grew around disagreements and through betrayals. At the end of the day, neighbors rely upon one another in meaningful ways whether comrades-in-arms or sworn enemies.
We all learn different lessons from our experience, and project them on others, which made it profoundly interesting to me that early in the book Lende references one of my friends who was hiding out in Tenakee when her best intentions came back around to violently end a once-promising political career. Lende suggests that the State Senator elected to write a very controversial letter of support as a favor, trying to be nice and make others happy. This couldn't be further from the truth.
Do What is Right Let the Consequences Follow often meets To Hell with Politics Do What is Right for Alaska - two rallying cries burned deep into the souls of Great Land statesmen. The Senator elected to bet the farm to right an injustice after she had done extensive homework. She embraced her small town values of freedom and justice and put effort behind intention.
After the experience of the Fairbanks Four, why wouldn't you do all in your power to secure the freedom of someone you strongly believed to be wrongly accused? When there were no witnesses, no guilty plea, no physical evidence of wrong doing, and the alleged victim recanted, multiple times to multiple parties - including the prosecutor? When there was no previous history of wrongdoing and the accused was well known and highly regarded in the community for all the good they had done over a lifetime of community service?
If you wouldn't throw your best effort to right a wrong that had significant impact to your town, an Alaskan family, and the Alaska Native community at large under these circumstances then how are you "representing" your constituency with integrity and conviction?
Years after I sat on the Seward City Council I was able to do a service for my community, I helped wrangle a memorable gift - Jason Momoa hanging out in Seward in the dead season, rubbing elbows with the locals.
I think that brought more people joy than anything I voted for or against while a public official.
Lende correctly asserts in Of Bears and Ballots that we are all needed and essential in our communities, and meaningful service takes many forms.
Her heartfelt reflections on difficult and decisive years offer confirmation that community begins and ends with lovingly serving your neighbors.