Of Bears and Ballots

by Heather Lende

“I still believe that every small choice I make as a Haines leader adds to the millions of decisions, laws, and resolutions that collectively determine the way the United States of America is governed and carries us closer to the goal of ‘liberty and justice for all.’ This is the butterfly effect of democracy.”

Ratings & Reviews

Book Grade: A-

I appreciated that the entire book felt like a conversation with a friend – a bit of jumping around and a few rabbit holes, but completely relatable and real. Lende’s rural life leaps off the pages, and characters like Big Don, Pizza Joe, and others who make assembly meetings vibrant political events. But the lessons that Lende learns over her term as an assembly member are lessons from which we can call benefit.

While politics take center stage, and the turmoil that arises when individuals remove the individual from the political equation is emphasized, Lende consistently circles back to the power of human relationships. Yes, her stories from the assembly meetings show the progress of her political career and her continued growth as a community, but Lende’s keen awareness of the power of individual connections is at the heart of the book. Stories about whether a tour company contract should continue in spite of safety concerns, or how posthumous allegations of sexual assault by a town legend should be handled, carry with them introspective lessons to which we can all relate.

Given that Lende is a grandmother in a small town, her stories can be charming and relatable, but some younger readers may struggle to find themselves in the stories. Persisting through the moments that may seem irrelevant will allow for glimmers of the truly irreverent to emerge.

Movie Rating: PG

Of Bears and Ballots has little objectionable material – these are Lende’s accounts of her escapades in her own community, after all. There is a bit of swearing and a scene that has Lende join her friends in a nude bathing hut which younger readers might find a bit uncomfortable. There are a few moments when Lende’s political views are discussed in depth, and her religious lens is shared, but both are highlighted to clarify her perspective.

Lende’s hilarious stories (which highlight Hines’ characters and political antics) are lively and appropriate for students with political interest, but will also appeal to readers who are intrigued by Alaska or small town life. Additionally, her frank retelling of the entire recall election experience offers a fascinating look into civic processes – something which will absolutely appeal to politically minded readers – and is woven into her stories in a seamless manner. Lende handles serious matters with grace and tact, but manages to impart life lessons that will stick with you long after you finish the book.

Would I Buy This for My Library: Probably

This book is a quick and engaging read – the stranger-than-fiction stories of small town politics are both laugh-out-loud funny and incredibly frank. The stories are relatable (on both the local and national level) and reinforce that political views and actions may divide communities if we let them. However, Lende emphasizes the fact that small changes make a difference and this will appeal to YA readers hoping to learn more about how they too can become politically involved (perhaps before they can even vote). Additionally, the constant struggle that Lende faces about being liked, respected, and accepted will resonate with readers of all ages. While this may not appeal to the average YA reader, it will be a compelling read for anyone interested in learning about the intricacies and realities of small town politics.

Summary:

A small Alaskan town is the last place one would imagine political turmoil or intense election seasons, yet Haines, Alaska is the setting for Heather Lende’s latest book, Of Bears and Ballots, focusing on her election to the city assembly and the lessons learned there. The everyday events of the borough come to life and assembly meetings, employee contracts, and harbor planning become humorous, insightful, and totally relatable – even if you don’t live in Alaska.

The story begins when Lende decides to jump into local government and runs for a position on Haines’ assembly. The election is just the beginning, though. Friendships are tested, alliances forged, and drama ensues. The central conflict in the story is a recall election that a few frustrated citizens push for from the moment that Lende is elected. She and two other progressive assembly members must fight to keep their positions, but in reality, the recall elections highlights how communities can be divided when political views come into play.

With a no-holds-barred look at small town life, Of Bears and Ballots sheds light on the characters and politics that make rural life what it is. With a conversational style and unbridled honesty, Of Bears and Ballots is both a charming and sobering look at the nature of small town democracy, but with a bit more excitement because there are bears and crabby fishermen involved. Lende’s introspective nature and refreshing honesty, however, make this more than just a political memoir. Of Bears and Ballots serves as a reminder just how deeply politics have seeped into every aspect of American life (even small towns), and the lengths to which we must go to in order to build bonds, strengthen our communities, and build a better future for our neighbors.

Book Talk Questions:

  1. Lende notes “Campaigning and governing are not the same at all. It’s easy to say what’s wrong with government; it’s harder to fix it, and progress can be very slow.” Given her story, what do you think is the primary obstacle to progress?
  2. Lende notes the remoteness of Southeast Alaska. Does this positively or negatively impact the community? How does this show up in the political sphere?
  3. Lende writes about Quaker meeting rules, nothing that “when Quakers hear that spirit voice, they stand, comment, and sit back down. There is no conversation or debate. If one person’s thoughts nudge another’s spirit to rise, they may speak but not rebuke or praise the previous speaker. They seek consensus.” What do you think about this approach to discourse? Where might it work?
  4. Why was the establishment of addresses a sign of progress and a sign of how many small town touches had been lost?
  5. What was Ernestine’s experience and do you agree with her assessment that “the land loves those who love it back?”
  6. Why do the results of the recall election not truly matter? What did Heather learn in the process?

A Perfect Read for Fans Of…

  • Find the Good by Heather Lende
  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
  • Two in the Far North by Margaret E. Murie
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