If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name: News From Small-Town Alaska

NPR commentator spins homilies out of rural life.

If I tried to date this book, my reaction would be: "It's not you, it's me. Though you're reallynice, attractive, and inspiring, I'm just not one for Bible passages and churchy stuff." Not that others won't warm to this journalistic collection (new in paperback), which chronicles Heather Lende's experiences in remote Haines, Alaska. Certainly, she's got a great outlook on life, being both a small-town Christian and an open-minded Democrat. (She's also a wife, mother of five kids, the local obituary writer, and a guest commentator on NPR.) Located 90 miles north of Juneau, Haines is in the boonies. It has no traffic light, no movie theater, and one post office where everyone picks up the mail. The high-school basketball games are "the biggest thing happening on most winter weekends." Anyone who gets really sick is airlifted to Seattle or Anchorage (if the weather permits). Here, the reader asks, Why the hell would anyone want to live there? Then, Lende describes snowshoeing on empty mountains, skating on the enormous Chilkoot Lake, flying in a shaking plane to see a rugged glacier, and making an egg salad sandwich with ingredients from her backyard and chicken coop, and you gradually get it. The natural beauty of the surroundings and the power of the close-knit community keep the roughly 2,400 residents devoted to Haines. Since Lende is an obituary writer, many of her stories revolve around dead people and their legacies. However, her most powerful stories, "Learning Moments" and "Mother Bears," are different. The first is political, as Lende volunteers to help with a homophobia workshop at the high school. The second follows Lende's trip to Bulgaria to adopt her daughter Stojanka (later, everyone calls her Stoli, like the vodka). In one fantastic passage, she fends off some pushy Bulgarians who are trying to feed the then-9-year-old Stoli raw chicken at a gas station. If You Lived Here has elements of Anne Lamott (the liberal piety stuff) and Garrison Keillor (the droll small-town stuff). Lende writes, "Wild places are reminders that the world doesn't revolve around us. . . . The tides ebb and flow and the seasons change regardless of how we live or die." In other words, everything she needs to know, she learned from Alaska.

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