BookBrowse Reviews Of Bears and Ballots by Heather Lende

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Of Bears and Ballots

An Alaskan Adventure in Small-Town Politics

by Heather Lende

Of Bears and Ballots by Heather Lende X
Of Bears and Ballots by Heather Lende
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2020, 288 pages

    Paperback:
    May 2021, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jamie Chornoby
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Journalist Heather Lende offers a glass-half-full account of what she learned running for office in small-town Alaska.

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

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in July 2020, and has been updated for the June 2021 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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