Of Bears and Ballots: An Alaskan Adventure in Small-Town Politics

Image of Of Bears and Ballots: An Alaskan Adventure in Small-Town Politics
Release Date: 
June 30, 2020
Algonquin Books
Reviewed by: 

Heather Lende offers a down-to-earth account of life in local politics in her fourth book set in Haines, her small Alaska town. Lende decided to run for her borough assembly during the circus-like 2016 election, and she occasionally ties her experiences to the polarized national political climate. Mostly, though, this book stays hyper-local, focused on the mundane happenings of the Haines Borough Assembly.

Lende, a registered Democrat, defines Haines politics as a mixed bag that defies normal stereotypes. “Candidates don’t run on a party platform, and a so-called liberal may not want to pay more taxes for trash pickup because they recycle and compost everything, while a so-called conservative might because they are tired of illegal dumping near the river where they hunt moose.”

The six-member Haines Borough Assembly represents the small town of Haines and the surrounding area, home to roughly 2,500 people. Lende describes the thrill of winning the seat (with a grand total of 501 votes), and the painful process of finding her footing on the assembly, an eclectic group of strong personalities regulated by an archaic set of rules.

While Robert’s Rules initially confound Lende, she eventually learns to embrace them. As politics in the country and her small town become more volatile, Robert’s Rules enforce measured civility. Lende explains that “legislating comes down to actions made through motions, seconds, and votes. I know that sounds like wonky talk, but it’s true. Now more than ever it is important to have high standards for civil public engagement.”

In chapters that feel like diary entries, including both workaday details and the author’s emotional state, Of Bears and Ballots meanders through Lende’s three-year term without much of a story arc. The most dramatic event is the attempt to recall Lende and two other assembly members for allegedly breaking the assembly’s communication rules.

The recall is an example of a politically driven maneuver that accomplishes nothing but wastes plenty of time. For Lende in her small hometown, it was a brutally personal attack. She knew the people who voted for and against her recall. Though the recall failed, it left Lende worse for wear, hurt and confused about why long-time friends and acquaintances had turned on her.

At its best, the book showcases Lende’s folksy style and keen understanding of her small town’s culture. She writes, “In Haines, if you complain too much about anything, from the decorations at the high school prom to the timing of the annual spring trash cleanup, then you will be invited to organize it the following year.”

This book will likely appeal more to Lende’s existing fans than to new readers, who are better off starting with her earlier books that deal with more lively topics.