I’m just catching up with a book that’s been in print for seven years, but the lag in time doesn’t do anything but add richness to Heather Lende’s fine work, “If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska.”
Haines might be any hamlet in a unique geographic environment, but Lende lifts the southeast Alaska coastal area and the people who live there to a level that turns her writing into a literary classic.
The fact that Lende writes obituaries for the local newspaper isn’t the only reason this ought to be on the required-reading list for journalism majors. How she gathers the details of the deceased lives — face-to-face with the people who knew the person best — is a lesson to be remembered, and the quality of what she learns about them is evidence that her methodology isn’t to be ignored.
Sprinkled through chapters with titles like “Nedra’s Casket” and “When Death Didn’t Stop for Angie” are snippets of her column, “Duly Noted,” tasty snacks to enjoy between the meals that are the satisfying entres. They’re newsy bites, subtledly humorous, frequently ironic, and help give a fuller picture of the goings on in this neck of the woods, from the mundane to the fascinating.
The picture includes spirituality in a variety of traditions, including a mention or two or three of the ministry of Father Jim and Sister Jill from Sacred Heart Catholic Church. In how many other books that make the N.Y. Times bestseller list do you think you’ll read the “Hail Mary” or about the author’s discovery of the rosary and learning how to pray it from a parish prayer group. “The rosary prayers are directed to the Virgin Mary,” this Episcopalian author wrote, “I liked that. It would be easier to talk to a woman, a mother like me, than to God himself.”
Living simply, living in tune with nature, caring about environmental issues, hunting, fishing, family, snowshoeing, skating and life-and-death drama — it’s all in there.
The uniqueness of Alaska makes great copy for those of us in the lower 48, but how Lende tells the stories of life there, that makes great reading.