By Heather Lende
Life in small town Alaska isn’t drastically different from life anywhere else in the world. In Haines, Alaska, winter roars through with feet upon feet of snow, spring alternates between slushy and sunshine-y days, and summer lingers just long enough to bring out all the brightness in life. Daily activities include things like bike trips gone awry, preparation and planning for cross-country meets, and friendly run-ins with helpful neighbors that fill triple roles as a fireman, volunteer ambulance driver, and local radio host. Everybody knows everybody, and everybody helps everybody else out. That’s the way it goes in a small town. Potlucks and community gatherings are replete with fresh-caught fish and game, from salmon, to elk, to black bear. Life, and death, happens in a local setting, which means the community and the land on which the community exists are as essential to the individual as they are to the whole. Sometimes the small town can feel frustratingly claustrophobic in the way that everybody knows everybody else’s business, but the genuine concern, care, and consideration given to all the locals (whether newcomers or old-timers) makes small town life rewarding. These stories capture the beauty of that life cycle.
“Take Good Care of the Dogs and the Garden” is the second book by Heather Lende (though I haven’t read the first). Lende, who writes obituaries for Haines residents as well as regular columns in the local and regional newspapers, captures the bucolic beauty of small town life against the backdrop of the breathtaking (and sometimes dangerous) Alaskan wilderness. She shares her observations in conversational essays that read more smoothly than a journal entry and less intellectual than a newspaper article. To contextualize her experiences, she imparts just enough history of the land and native cultures in the region to acknowledge her presence as a transplant without bogging readers down with nitty-gritty detail. Written after she had a run-in with a truck (which happened while she was riding a bike), Lende returns to the theme of facing and accepting uncertainty in order to live more wholly. In doing so, she shares stories of the Haines residents she memorializes in obituaries, and explores her own grief at having lost her mother almost a year after she was hit by a truck. In a town in which everyone is connected to everyone else, Lende looks at the connections between the pieces of life: the good, the bad, and especially the ugly. Acknowledging each of these pieces allows for greater presence with them, especially the good.
I picked this book up because I thought “small town. Alaska. Who wouldn’t want to read that?” I thoroughly enjoyed her descriptions of the town, the quirks of her neighbors, and the way in which all the people fit together. I especially loved anything related to Alaskan wilderness adventures (yes, even her black bear hunting expedition). Though it was part of the description, I was not expecting this book to be quite so religious. Lende regularly quotes the Book of Common Prayer, and most of the chapters in the book impart a spiritual lesson. I could take it or leave it because I would rather wrestle with concerns of life and death in a context that is more familiar to me, but regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would recommend it to others.