The BookBrowse Review

Published June 9, 2021

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Of Bears and Ballots
Of Bears and Ballots
An Alaskan Adventure in Small-Town Politics
by Heather Lende

Paperback (25 May 2021), 288 pages.
Publisher: Algonquin Books
ISBN-13: 9781643751405

The writer whom the Los Angeles Times calls "part Annie Dillard, part Anne Lamott" now brings us her quirky and compassionate account of holding local office.

Heather Lende was one of the thousands of women inspired to take a more active role in politics during the past few years. Though her entire campaign for assembly member in Haines, Alaska, cost less than $1,000, she won! But tiny, breathtakingly beautiful Haines—a place accessible from the nearest city, Juneau, only by boat or plane—isn't the sleepy town that it appears to be: from a bitter debate about the expansion of the fishing boat harbor to the matter of how to stop bears from rifling through garbage on Main Street to the recall campaign that targeted three assembly members, including Lende, we witness the nitty-gritty of passing legislation, the lofty ideals of our republic, and how the polarizing national politics of our era play out in one small town.

With an entertaining cast of offbeat but relatable characters, Of Bears and Ballots is an inspirational tale about what living in a community really means, and what we owe one another.

★ ONE ★
Election Day

THERE ARE TWO polling places in Haines. One is in the arts center lobby, on the hill above the harbor and cruise ship dock, the other at the re hall in Mosquito Lake, a woodsy rural settlement twenty-six miles out of town. I voted at the arts center and said hi to everyone as I walked in, but I didn't say, "Wish me luck," or anything close to it. The public radio station, KHNS, and signs on the street corners reminded residents that no campaigning was allowed at or near polling places. One neighbor, who lives in an old house with a wide porch on Soap Suds Alley, was asked by the borough clerk to remove campaign signs from his yard since his home was too close to the polls. I did notice who was there voting, though, friends and foes, and wondered which side of the Haines left-right divide would be victorious. Either way, a little more than half of us would be happy, and a little less than half would be disappointed. Haines is predictable; I assumed it would be close.

It looked to me as though more conservative voters than my supporters were at the arts center that morning. I hoped my years in town, my community service on the library board, the hos-pice board, and planning commission, my volunteer hosting of the local country music show on KHNS, coaching high school runners for seventeen years, five good children and five grandchildren (the sixth and seventh were still to come), our family business, Lutak Lumber, which my husband, Chip, runs, plus all those obituaries—I've been writing them for the Chilkat Valley News since 1997—would give me crossover support. I'm not sure that term fits Haines-style elections though. Candidates don't run on a party platform, and a so-called liberal may not want to pay more taxes for trash pickup because they recycle and compost every-thing, while a so-called conservative might because they are tired of illegal dumping near the river where they hunt moose. I may be a registered Democrat, but at least everyone knows me. I have written about this town in three books, which are in many ways love letters to Haines. My life is an open book, literally.

In Alaska, municipalities are organized as boroughs, and Haines Borough has a mayor, and a six-member assembly that hires a manager who runs the daily operation of what is essentially the small city that is Haines proper, with about sixteen hundred residents, and the outlying areas—the borough is about the size of Rhode Island—with a grand total of about twenty-five hundred people. I asked how the turnout had been so far, and one of the women seated at the folding table handing out ballots, a friend—our kids grew up together and we played on the same softball team—said, "Quiet but steady." that could describe any Tuesday morning in Haines. I signed the line next to my name in the big book of registered voters and took the ballot over to one of the portable red, white, and blue–curtained booths. I stopped a minute to read my own name on the official ballot before filling in the oval next to it. That little moment of pride and even joy may be as good as it gets. It could be the beginning and end of my late-in-life political career. I was proud of myself for running, for channeling my frustration with the circus of national politics that had been so distracting, really ever since Sarah Palin's rise. And now Trump seemed to be her successor in the "speak first, think later" category, prompting headlines with outrageous pronouncements and turning politics into a new kind of theater of the absurd.

After feeding my ballot into the electronic ballot box, I pressed a blue-and-yellow sticker featuring the flag of Alaska, with its Big Dipper and North Star that read I VOTED on my jacket, and we all wished one another a nice day. Which of the poll workers had voted for me, I wondered? Actually, I didn't mind not knowing. They didn't need to know who I chose, either. that's how we stay friends after an election. It is also why most businesses don't allow candidates to put up campaign signs, and why a lot of residents never endorse a candidate publicly. You don't want to burn any bridges or hurt any feelings in a place this small and isolated. Only ferries and small planes connect Haines to Juneau, the rest of southeast Alaska, and beyond, and the one road out of town runs north, through British Columbia and the Yukon Territory. I had let friends know that if they wanted to put up a yard sign, I'd give them one, or if they'd like me to come over myself and hammer it on their tree, I would. I didn't think I needed to order any more than twenty-five but ended up buying extra because of all the requests. Did they make a difference? I doubt it.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Of Bears and Ballots by Heather Lende. Copyright © 2020 by Heather Lende. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Journalist Heather Lende offers a glass-half-full account of what she learned running for office in small-town Alaska.

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Heather Lende has lived in Haines, Alaska for nearly four decades. In that time, she has been extremely active in her community, writing over 500 obituaries for the local paper, Chilkat Valley News, running the local hardware store and lumberyard with her husband Chip, and volunteering everywhere from Haines Borough Public Library to Hospice of Haines, all while raising her family of five children and seven grandchildren. As if that wasn't enough, in 2016, Lende decided to run for local office.

Looking at the rest of the United States, Lende was not alone in her desire to serve her community. According to the Los Angeles Times, since 2016 there has been a spike in the number of women running for political office, at the local, state and national levels. Emily's List — known for recruiting and supporting progressive Democratic women candidates — reported that after the November 2016 election, 40,000 women expressed interest in running for office, versus the sub-1,000 who had expressed interest in the prior election cycle. For Heather Lende, the coveted office was a spot on the Haines Borough Assembly, which she won.

Lende explains that Alaska contains boroughs, which function similarly to counties. Organized boroughs have an elected mayor as well as a six-member assembly. The assembly hires a city manager for day-to-day operations, and they also appoint a number of committees, boards and commissions to advise them. Together, such a unit governs Haines, Alaska, serving a population of around 2,500 people. Local positions are filled by a revolving door of everyday citizens, and the constituency is surprisingly engaged. Lende describes Haines as politically "purple," with streaks of red and blue.

Of Bears and Ballots reads like a series of stories themed around Lende's time in Haines Borough Assembly. These stories span her campaign, election day, everyday decisions, small-town scandals, recall elections and personal victories. Her friendly, approachable and conversational style eliminates the stuffiness and confusion that can emanate from politics — especially in this day and age where the idea of "fake news" and a tendency to distrust authority often threatens the public's reception of knowledge. Heather Lende is just a regular person who does the best she can. She walks readers through her days, weeks and months of service. She makes it seem possible for anyone invested in the well-being of their community to get involved.

However, some of her experiences are fraught. She tells readers how she struggles but manages to stay kind and foster community with all of Haines — even the man who used "flimsy and failed" evidence to accuse Lende of hiding information and acting on special interests in office, the person who accidentally drove into her while she was cycling, and the neighbor who voted red when she voted blue. In such a rural place with so few people, Lende believes that keeping peace is a priority.

As a politically impassioned reader, I found some of Lende's recommendations too idle. Lende describes moments where she refused to confront hatred and nastiness in Haines, avoiding important discussions in order to prevent changes to her personal relationships. Because Lende truly adores her community, it makes sense that she writes, "Don't permit politics to make friendship impossible." Yet, in encouraging readers to continually seek only the positive and move on without handling the negative, there seems to be little room to address the darker undercurrents in ourselves, our neighbors, our communities and our society. Particularly at a time when very real social injustices are inspiring mass organized action focused on race and police brutality, trying to convince readers that "it's just politics, not real life," feels unsettling and silencing. The personal is political.

Despite this point of criticism, Of Bears and Ballots is an interesting and optimistic look at local politics in America. Although there are some unique challenges faced by those in rural Alaska, Haines is representative of a broader picture of American politics, and Lende's story offers some ideas as to how people might work together and move forward. Her encouragement to be compassionate and listen to others is an important takeaway for all. As she shows by example, it is not up to someone else to save the world; ordinary people must work together to make the best choices they can for their communities.

To learn more, check out Heather Lende's recent interview with WAMU 88.5, in which she discusses how the pandemic and recent demonstrations against police brutality have played out in Haines.

Reviewed by Jamie Chornoby

New York Journal of Books
In chapters that feel like diary entries, including both workaday details and the author’s emotional state, Of Bears and Ballots meanders through Lende’s three-year term without much of a story arc...At its best, the book showcases Lende’s folksy style and keen understanding of her small town’s culture...This book will likely appeal more to Lende’s existing fans than to new readers, who are better off starting with her earlier books that deal with more lively topics.

Minneapolis Star Tribune
Lende is a graceful and endearing writer, recapitulating the kind of wily, folksy wit and wisdom we associate with, say, Mark Twain, so much more powerful than the predictable “gotcha” snark of our social media age...What a blessing Lende’s view of democracy, which she calls 'glorious chaos,' is in this dark era. 'So much depends on people of good will, and they are everywhere,' she writes. She reminds us about the dreams we share, especially now, as we cry for, and struggle to save, our beloved country.

Kirkus Reviews
A memoir from an idealistic older woman who won political office for the first time...Written in her usual sprightly, witty, humble, effervescent style, this one will please the author's fans.

Publishers Weekly
The result is an honest and inspirational investigation into why "it's easy to say what's wrong with government; it's harder to fix it, and progress can be very slow."

Library Journal
A heartfelt ode to civil service. Recommended for readers interested in government, civil service, and small-town life.

As the reader follows [Lende’s] 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.

Author Blurb Tom Kizza, New York Times-bestselling author of Pilgrim's Wilderness and The Wake of the Unseen Object
Heather Lende has the voice of that friend down the street you love to chat with over coffee—the one who knows everything going on in town, but also knows the difference between gossip and storytelling.

Author Blurb Melody Warnick, author of This Is Where You Belong
Heather Lende's brave, big-hearted 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 Heather to take the helm of your hometown." -

Author Blurb Bruce Botelho, former Mayor of Juneau, Alaska
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." -

Author Blurb Bill McKibben, author of Falter
Citizenship—real, active citizenship of the kind we badly need—is hard work, as this book makes clear. But it's also rewarding in a profound way; hopefully this will inspire people to work with and for their neighbors in all kinds of ways!" -

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Elizabeth Peratrovich and the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945

Black and white photograph of Elizabeth PeratrovichIn Of Bears and Ballots, Heather Lende reflects on the contributions of Elizabeth Peratrovich to Alaskan history during a community event celebrating the activist's life.

Elizabeth Peratrovich (1911-1958) worked tirelessly to achieve equality for Alaskan Natives. Those familiar with Peratrovich likely know of her role in passing the first anti-discrimination bill in the United States: Alaska's Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945. Her powerful testimony to Alaska's Territorial Legislature is believed to have split the opposition, allowing for the bill's passage. However, her commitment to civil rights and equality was lifelong.

Peratrovitch was born in Petersburg, Alaska as a member of the Tlingit Nation, an original people of the Pacific Northwest Coast. After being orphaned as a young child, Elizabeth was adopted by Mary and Andrew Wanamaker. She grew up poor, with her father Andrew working as a fisherman and Presbyterian minister. In addition to the limited opportunities afforded to her because of her family's modest socioeconomic situation, Elizabeth faced discrimination because she was Indigenous. At the time, signs reading "No Natives Allowed" and "No Dogs, No Natives" were common. Speaking a Native language was prohibited in schools and on reservations because it was considered "uncivilized." Native people were routinely denied access to hospitals, restaurants, theaters, schools and shops.

In 1933, Elizabeth married Roy Peratrovich, who was part Tlingit. The couple became increasingly active in the local Indigenous communities. By the time their family moved to Juneau, Alaska in 1941, Roy led the Alaska Native Brotherhood, and Elizabeth was Grand President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood. As the United States entered World War II later that year, the couple was infuriated at the open discrimination happening at home. How could the United States go to war against the racist, xenophobic Hitler while treating its own people so poorly? Writing to Governor Ernest H. Gruening about the "outrageous" signs forbidding Native people entry and service at one local establishment, they explained: "[The business owner] does not seem to realize that our Native boys are just as willing as the white boys to lay down their lives to protect the freedom that he enjoys."

After that letter, Elizabeth Peratrovich's efforts expanded. She traveled by plane to the most remote areas of Alaska to raise awareness, rally support and organize Indigenous people. Although the first attempt to pass anti-discrimination legislation failed with a tie vote in 1943, Elizabeth escalated her organizing in the following years. She persuaded three Alaskan Natives to run for election in the legislature, which prompted discussions about Indigenous issues in the government. By the time Peratrovich delivered her 1945 testimony, her message was stirring and potent: "No law will eliminate crimes but at least you as legislators can assert to the world that you recognize the evil of the present situation and speak your intent to help us overcome discrimination."

Although a full transcript of Peratrovich's famous remarks is unavailable, reports note that she went on to emphasize the importance of addressing the structural discrimination against Native Alaskans, calling for equal housing, school and job opportunities, and denouncing the venomous cultural discrimination of the racist slurs and signs prevalent in Alaska.

Elizabeth Peratrovich died of breast cancer at the age of 47, but her legacy continues to inspire activists in Alaska and beyond. For example, Alicia Maryott, a member of the Alaska Native Sisterhood who advocates on behalf of missing and murdered Indigenous women, admires Peratrovich's radical approach to creating change. Maryott explains that Peratrovich "made it clear that asking for equal rights implies that they're someone else's to give." Instead of being moderate and pandering for public support, Peratrovich radically carved a path for taking back the rights that were stolen from her and other Alaska Natives. Similarly, activist Miciana Alise has spoken on Peratrovich's instrumental efforts to obtain "racial equality in Alaska and for all Native people" by realizing her power and using her voice.

In 1988, Alaska Legislature made February 16th Elizabeth Peratrovich Day. Michael E. Roberts, First Nations President and CEO, has urged the rest of the United States to recognize the groundbreaking contributions of Indigenous activists like Elizabeth Peratrovich as well. Decades before the civil rights movement outlawed Jim Crow laws and passed the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, Peratrovich took a courageous stand.

Elizabeth Peratrovich, courtesy of Alaska's Digital Archives

Filed under People, Eras & Events

By Jamie Chornoby

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