At a time when reality TV continues its relentless portrayal of Alaska as a source of extreme and outlandish (even ridiculous) behavior, author Heather Lende consistently reminds readers that it is actually a place populated by people, just like anywhere else. As the newspaper obituary writer for the small town of Haines, (population about 2,000), Lende has written for years about ordinary people who have quietly lived extraordinary lives. She shared some of these stories in her first book, If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name and then, after suffering horrific injuries when she was hit by a truck near her home, wrote a memoir of her recovery, Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs.
Now, in her latest book, Find the Good, Lende strikes a philosophical tone, exploring the idea of “wisdom to live by.” She does not pretend to have all the answers, and in fact makes clear that she often has more questions than answers. What she does excel at, though, is deep appreciation of the people and places around her. Some of this awareness might come from being the mother of five children, from living in a place of all kinds of extremes, from a long and steady marriage which was immeasurably significant during her convalescence or, simply because her job demands she listen quietly and write with infinite care.
In short chapters ranging from funny to poignant, Lende shares snapshots of life from Haines. There is, for example, the community’s efforts to provide floatation devices for their fishermen after the drowning death of one of their own. The inflatable suspenders, superior to traditional life jackets but still an unfamiliar item for many, are embraced by most of the town but not everyone. Frustrated, Lende resists the urge to righteously demand they be worn, knowing as she does that “nothing is guaranteed to keep anyone from dying.” She thus takes a different tack, a gentler one, writing of one young man who refuses to wear something he insists are only for “old men.”
….I kissed him on the cheek and told him to please, please be careful out there, and that I loved him very much and that I loved his deckhand even more since he’s my only son.
This much I know for sure: Hope floats.
Some lessons have to be learned on your own, Lende knows, some truths can only come when you are ready.
For her, the biggest shock arrives when her 21-year-old unmarried daughter becomes unexpectedly pregnant. In the face of calm acceptance on behalf of the soon-to-be parents, she very nearly loses control, her heart taking “a bad fall”. This was not supposed to happen, it was not part of her plan for this daughter, for any of her children. Lende writes revealingly of her struggle with the idea of the impending baby and what all of this will mean to her orderly life. Casting about for the right thing to say and do she collides with her stoic husband, who suggests the young family live next door while they get themselves on their feet and find their way. “But what was a good mother to do?” Lende asks and her husband gives a simple answer:
“Nothing,” Chip said. “We’re doing enough working on the house. Stop trying to fix something that isn’t broken. It’s not like she’s in the hospital with a terminal illness. It’s a baby.”
This is a tough one and Lende doesn’t shy away from sharing her worries, but she also makes clear that it’s an easy choice as well. This is a baby with parents who love her, a baby with grandparents right next door, a baby who arrives to the hands of those who are delighted to welcome her. Nothing is wrong for a baby in a world like that; you just have to take a moment, catch your breath and see that everything will be alright.
You just have to remember that nothing is broken.
Find the Good is a relatively short read, at only 162 pages. Shelved in the Self-Help section, where I found it, the book seems like it should be a cliché, a trifle of feel good advice in the midst of saccharine titles all promising obvious answers to our complicated world. But just as she proved in her previous books, and is so evident to her regular readers in Haines, Heather Lende is not a writer who merely tells you what you want to hear. As Sitka author John Straley writes in his blurb for Find the Good, there is much more to be found in these pages, it “...is a tonic, a literary wellspring, which will continue to run, and nurture, even in times of drought. What a brave and beautiful thing Heather Lende has made with this book.”
It seems so easy to write something that makes the world a better place, but as most writers know, it isn’t. Heather Lende has a rare gift and is a writer to be treasured and appreciated for all the tough times in your life, whether you are from a small town in Southeast Alaska or a city on the other side of the world.
Colleen Mondor is the author of The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska. She lives in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.
Follow Colleen Mondor on Twitter: @chasingray