Heather Lende’s three previous books have been about life in her small town of Haines, Alaska. Her latest book, “Of Bears and Ballots,” goes on sale Tuesday, June 30 — Lende’s 61st birthday — and marks a departure in tone and approach.
Driven by character and a sense of place, reviewers for her previous works have used words like “touching,” “compassionate” and “homespun” to describe them.
An obituary writer for the Chilkat Valley News, Lende’s columns have been published in places like Woman’s Day, the Anchorage Daily News and the Christian Science Monitor. Lende has been a faculty member at the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference and wrote “Find the Good,” “Take Good Care of the Children and the Dogs” and “If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name.”
Next Tuesday on the official release date of “Of Bears and Ballots,” Lende will hold a “Publication Day and Birthday Party” Zoom conference at 5 p.m. At 6 p.m. Friday, July 10, the Homer Bookstore will hold another Zoom talk with Lende. For link details, visit Lende’s website at heatherlende.com.
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.
Similar to what happened with the Homer City Council in which a group of conservative activists attempted to recall former council members David Lewis and Catriona Reynolds and current council member Donna Aderhold, in Haines Lende and two other assembly members, Tom Morphet and Tresham Gregg, stood for recall. As happened in Homer, the three Haines assembly members survived the recall effortwith about 60% voting against removing them.
“I had no intention of writing a book about being on the borough assembly,” Lende said. “I didn’t think it was that interesting. It’s like doing your laundry. Once the recall happened, there was a story.”
Lende said she initially planned to write about first being elected to the assembly and then about surviving the recall vote. She expanded the book to include what it means to govern in a small community. Her chapter headings titled “Manager and Committee Reports” give a taste of that, with reports like “Public Works has been stockpiling sand for winter roads, replaced the doors to the fire hall, and finished prepping and crushing nineteen derelict vehicles to be shipped out on the scrap metal barge.”
The Haines recall happened over allegations of violating the Alaska Open Meetings Act with emails exchanged between the recalled members — one of whom, Morphet, never received the suspect email. It also alleged Morphet, then owner of the Chilkat Valley News, and Lende, a freelance writer for the paper, abused their official position in asking the Haines Police Chief to reinstate the police blotter.
Lende said she and the other two assembly members had been elected partly on a platform of opposing a design to expand the Haines Harbor. She objected to a plan for a large parking lot and a steel retaining wall instead of rock.
“It became one of those ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against it,’” she said. “… Not, gee, can you take a different look at the plan?”
At its core, Lende said the recall “was basically about a group of people who didn’t want the more liberal members on the assembly who had at least another year to go to be on the assembly any more.”
In one of the sadder sections, in Chapter 10, Lende writes about hearing the news that the recall petition had gathered enough signatures. She describes being on the phone with her sister, Suzanne, also a Haines resident. They read the names on the petition, not of the ones Lende knew would be there, but “of the people who knew me well and still chose to endorse Big Don’s (the recall organizer) version of my sins, and even worse, never took the trouble to ask me if they were true” — people like “… the friendly guy who plowed our driveway. Friends of our son. Friends of our daughters,” Lende writes. “… We probably won’t be invited to their big Fourth of July party anymore.”
The experience left her bitter but also grateful, Lende said.
“For me … my books evolved into love letters for Haines,” Lende said. “This one is different. I don’t see the town the same way I did before. I realized there are mean people out there. I did really learn the people who are my friends and who I respect and the ones I don’t.”
Beyond the recall story, “Of Bears and Ballots” could be a primer on small town government — that is to say, American government, the nuts and bolts of how streets get plowed and budgets get written. That’s also considered in the context of larger issues like police brutality toward Black men and the COVID-19 pandemic, Lende said.
“I hate to take up the oxygen of more fundamental issues here,” she said. “On the other hand, maybe I can explain why it’s important to run for local office. In fact, some of the issues related to public health and systemic racism are made at the local level, one assembly meeting at a time, one budget at a time.”
Despite her experience, as in her previous books, the tender, kind and compassionate voice Lende has become known for endures.
“Part of it, in politics and life, you have to learn to forgive people,” she said. “… Hate is a bad thing to carry around in your soul. Even when you feel like you’ve been wronged, move on and do some good somewhere else.”
Hunkered down in Haines during the pandemic, Lende’s book tour will be entirely virtual. While she said she will miss a traveling tour and being able to sign a book and hand it to that person, the virtual tour had its advantages. Recently she watched a Zoom conference with Nelchina writer Mary Odden for her new book, “Mostly Water.”
“It’s kind of neat. I can go to events I wouldn’t normally go and people can come to mine,” Lende said. “… I’m really lucky that what I write gets published and goes out into the world. It’s kind of a miracle every time. For that I’m really grateful.”