NPR contributor and obituary writer shares sweet musings of life in Alaska

I’ve always wanted to go to Alaska, so when I saw the book, “If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska” by Heather Lende, I was immediately drawn in by the moose on the cover.

And, yes, there are moose sightings and encounters in the book, but that’s not what makes it such a great read.

Lende and her large family live in Haines, Alaska, a small town north of Juneau that is accessible by water or air – when the weather cooperates, that is, and it frequently doesn’t.

Lende is the local newspaper’s obituary writer and social reporter, so she covers births, weddings and funerals – and everyone knows everyone else. She shares the stories of the interesting people in her community. There are native Tlingit Indians and their complex family trees; a one-legged female gold miner; hunting trips that go well and others that end in death or disappearance.

There are stories about the struggle to get to her prenatal checkups in another town via a “puddle jumper” plane and ferry and her extended family’s issues in even getting to Haines.

When Lende moved to Alaska in the early 1980s, she was a vegetarian who couldn’t imagine eating goat. Now, it’s her go-to dish for special occasions. She’s embraced a lifestyle where hunting isn’t for sport, but for life, and she spends her time between interviews and funerals tending to the chickens, gardening or hunting with her husband. I think she would fit in well in northcentral Pennsylvania.

Her chapters end with part of her Duly Noted newspaper column that appears in the Chilkat Valley News. It’s an often funny, slice-of-life column that highlights who did what in town that week. But no matter what she ends up writing about, something always brings her back to her other job – obituary writer – whether she likes it or not. Lende realizes death is inevitable everywhere, even in her personal life, and said that “writing about the dead helps me celebrate the living.”

Although she thought she had a unique perspective for understanding death and how it affects someone, she was completely caught off guard by her own feelings after the death of the family dog, Carl. “That big black dog is in every family scene I can recall … I want him back,” she writes. “This is not a good lesson. It is a really, really bad lesson. … Losing this good old dog has undone me.”

And then there are the parts that will resonate with someone who lives in a small town. When she talks about local theater productions, she truly means it when she says the local shows are more important to Haines than a big Broadway show. “Happiness can be as simple as a familiar tune and someone to sing it with,” she writes about the local “Sound of Music” performance that included everyone in town in some way.

But I think she best sums it up when talking about the death of a neighbor and how he compared Haines to his own personal paradise: “Lots of people have willed Haines to be a paradise, and because we do, it is.”

Reading this book makes me want to visit Alaska even more, and Lende’s writing style makes it feel like you are chatting with your best friend over a nice hot mug of tea.