A tiny town in Alaska is her world

A small-town obit writer meditates on the interesting lives of those around her.

When I worked for a metro newspaper in California, a friend once remarked that he regularly read the obituary page. Because he was a senior citizen, I assumed he was on the alert for friends and acquaintances.

How wrong I was! He loved to read write-ups about perfect strangers because they served as windows into interesting lives. Good obit writers, he said, tell stories about living, not dying. Ever since then, I kept running into habitual obituary readers.

These readers, and others, will appreciate Heather Lende's collection of essays about life in small-town Alaska, for they spring from her work as an obituary writer and social columnist for the Chilkat Valley News.

Mother of five, and wife to a lumber-yard owner, Ms. Lende is a curious observer of Alaska's curious inhabitants. (Maybe you've heard the saying about the state's lopsided male-female ratio: The odds are good but the goods are odd?) Her intimate writing brings readers right into the hearts of people who choose to live in a remote place "so wild and beautiful, that all I can do is walk outside my house and stare."

That's Haines, now a cruise line stop at the foot of majestic mountains that slope down to the inland waters of the Pacific, just north of Juneau. In this town where fishing is so central to livelihoods, she uses the tragic sinking of a vessel owned by close friends to illustrate that lifestyle. Likewise, the passing of a man who lived by himself - and whose death wasn't discovered for four days - turns into an essay about "people who come to Alaska to be alone."

Lende crafts colorful and meaningful stories about the human (and animal) assortment that makes up Haines, from natives to transplants. But she also chronicles her own evolution from an East Coaster to permanent resident of the last frontier. She prizes her self-sufficiency, helping to build her family's house and smoking her own salmon. Her transformation from someone who's "not a big gun person" to a woman determined to hunt with her husband shows just how deeply this state and its culture can get under a person's skin.

And it's not just the lessons of the wilderness she learns, but also of life in a small town - having to get along with people who aren't like-minded, for instance. A population of just over 2,400 "means we're big enough to avoid people we don't like, but small enough to have to be careful about what we say in public."

As a person also seduced by Alaska (my first newspaper job was at the Anchorage Daily News), I came to this book wanting to love every page of it. Perhaps that's why its flaws disappoint me more than they might others.

For instance, while I grant Lende that Alaska is a dangerous place, I could do with less death in my summer reading. Also, the book is a bit too emotive for my taste. Lende is an honest, down-to-earth writer whose narratives can be heard on NPR and occasionally read in this newspaper. But she wears her heart on her sleeve - too much, at times.

Still, if you've always wanted to go to Alaska but just haven't done so yet, pick up her book. Where else are you going to read about blueberry picking with a boom box to ward off bears?

Francine Kiefer is on the Monitor staff.

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