Of Bears and Ballots: An Alaskan Adventure in Small-Town Politics
- By Heather Lende
- Algonquin Books
- 288 pp.
- Reviewed by Yelizaveta P. Renfro
- October 1, 2020
A timely reminder that running for office doesn’t need to be a blood sport.
During the contentious 2016 election season, Heather Lende ran for an assembly seat in tiny Haines, Alaska — a remote borough the size of Rhode Island with the nearest city, Juneau, accessible only by boat or plane.
In an effort to channel her “frustration with the circus of national politics that had been so distracting,” Lende saw an opportunity to do good and give back to the community she’s called home for more than three decades.
Haines, “an old logging and fishing town” that has grown into “a newer artsy place for tourists and retirees,” has an electorate that Lende describes as “violet with red and blue highlights.” Lende, a prominent resident who has written three previous books about her town, is known locally as the obituary writer for the newspaper (a part-time post she’s held since 1997), as well as for her involvement in civic organizations such as the library board, the hospice board, and the planning commission.
A deeply involved citizen — her husband, Chip, runs the local lumber company, and the couple raised five children in town — Lende wanted, in part, to be an example to her young granddaughters: “Grandma Mimi was about to become Haines Borough Assembly Member Lende. How about that?”
With 501 votes, Lende captured one of the two open assembly seats and plunged headfirst into local politics. Tackling a number of hot-button issues — a harbor expansion project, freight dock repairs, the firing of the town manager, to name just a few — she quickly found herself the target of a recall effort led by a group of conservative citizens. The group sought to remove Lende, along with two other liberal-leaning members of the assembly, from office; the trio of politicians was perceived to be “liberal, incompetent, anti-economic development.”
In the end, Lende prevailed in the recall — 644 voters cast ballots to keep her in office, nearly 150 more votes in her favor than she had received to win her seat in the first place — but the experience left her deeply shaken.
“It was hard to believe I had once been the grand marshal of the parade, the Chamber of Commerce volunteer-of-the-year, the lauded hometown author,” she writes in Of Bears and Ballots. “It all left me feeling as if the love of my life had cheated on me. Haines is my favorite place in the whole world. My home. The people here are my people, or so I thought.”
In surveying the local political landscape of Haines, the author observed that “as 2016 rolled into 2017, 2018, and 2019, the assembly chambers, and politics in Haines, like those nationally, became more polarized, harsher, and much less courteous. On all sides.” Initially blaming Trump for much of the divisive rhetoric that she was seeing both locally and nationally, Lende eventually took on a more nuanced view:
“But maybe the vitriol is not so new, and Trump has only encouraged the worst instincts in otherwise decent people, under the guise of praising straight talkers. It’s possible that I had ignored the simmering anger in Haines that is the flip side of our progressive community’s activism. The divide between the so-called loggers and hippies can be deep and always has been, even if the ‘hippies’ now have beautiful homes and work hard and the ‘loggers’ are now miners or fishermen or retired cops from Michigan.”
In other words, politics at all levels is intertangled. “At the time of the recall I wondered if national politics floated up to small-town Alaska,” Lende writes. “Now I’m wondering if Haines politics drifted south. It’s probably some of both, with social media grabbing the helm during the stormiest moments.”
Though branded a “liberal” by many in the community, Lende refuses to reduce people to labels or single issues; human beings, she tells us, are more complicated than red vs. blue, Republican vs. Democrat. When close friends admitted that they voted for Trump, Lende does not renounce them: “A corollary to the adage that politics is the art of the possible is: don’t permit politics to make friendships impossible.” She also examines the complexities of her own and her husband’s identities:
“We are stereotypical in a lot of ways: husband, wife, golden retrievers, an old Oriental rug on the floor and lots of books on the shelves, watching PBS and sipping cabernet and a local IPA. And yet. Chip is a registered Republican, there’s moose stew in the crock-pot (we shot it and butchered it), and an icon of Mary and baby Jesus rests on the mantel below the wide moose antlers. I have been a Democrat since I was eighteen.”
Despite these differences, the couple is deeply committed to one another. Over and over again, Lende acknowledges the complexities of all the people she encounters in her political life, giving them the benefit of the doubt.
“I hate to sound like a grandmother, but I am one, and so my dears, learn to share, take turns, and understand not everyone can have everything she wants all the time,” she advises. “Finally, and this may be the most important thing I will ever say about politics and life: accept apologies that won’t be offered and forgive people who may never ask you to.”
Lende’s writing has a homespun, plainspoken quality; at certain moments, she writes like a grandmother telling a meandering tale through a series of slow-paced anecdotes and tangents that require patience from the reader.
But don’t let her artlessness fool you. She is well read and whip smart, and her undying optimism and faith in her fellow citizens offer a needed buoy in our current election climate. Her book is timely and relevant, and Haines, we learn, with its “Us and Them and Old and New” polarization is not so remote after all.
Lende’s book expresses concern, moderation, optimism, and even idealism — as old fashioned as it might seem:
“Call me naïve, but I still believe that every small choice I make as a Haines leader adds to the millions of decisions, laws, and resolutions that collectively determine the way the United States of America is governed and carries us closer to the goal of ‘liberty and justice for all.’ This is the butterfly effect of democracy.”
Though Lende chose not to run again after the conclusion of her three-year term, she remains civically involved, and her book is a call to action to the rest of us. “I think I made a positive difference in my little community,” she writes. “Which means anyone can — and now, more than ever, that’s important. Basically, America needs volunteer EMTs and they are us.”
Politics matters, Lende reminds us, on every level — maybe, especially, the local — and we all need to do our part.
Yelizaveta P. Renfro is the author of a book of nonfiction, Xylotheque: Essays, and a collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, Creative Nonfiction, North American Review, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, South Dakota Review, Witness, Reader's Digest, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from George Mason University and a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska.