Reading this book was like sipping from a big mug of hot chocolate. A bittersweet hot chocolate with marshmallows on top.
Because it is a heartwarming tale of life in small town Alaska. Yet because of Lende’s occupation as the weekly newspaper’s obituary writer, there’s a bittersweetness to it, as she tells us about those who have passed on. Some old, some young. Some sudden, others expected.
“Being an obituary writer means I think a lot about loss, but more about love. Writing the obituaries of so man people I’ve known makes me acutely aware of death, but in a good way, the way Emily Dickinson meant when she wrote, ‘That it will never come again / Is what makes life so sweet.'”
“…writing about the dead helps me celebrate the living – my neighbours, friends, husband, and five children – and this place, which some would say is on the edge of nowhere, but for me is the centre of everywhere.”
Of course this is also Lende’s story, of her family, her life, her neighbours and friends, and what it is like to live in Haines, population 2400.
Haines, Alaska sounds like a kind of magical, beautiful, isolated place, where seals party on the beach and moose nosh on the lawn. It is at the northern tip of the Inside Passage, miles from anywhere (800 from Anchorage, 90 from Juneau – 90 doesn’t sound that far, but waiting out the snow can take a while). And John Muir warned young people not to come to this part of Alaska, as they’d have to either stay or know that every other place they’d see for the rest of their lives would be a disappointment.
This is a town that comes together for its residents like the parents of a child with cancer of the optical nerve who needed help paying for treatments.
“There were environmentalists and developers, Catholics and hippies, newcomers and old-timers, Natives and whites. Everyone spent more than they had, and loved every minute of it.
Each chapter begins with a ‘Duly noted’ section, featuring snippets of life in Haines, like weddings and celebrations, fundraisers, parties, homecomings, or just the sighting of humpback whales. A fun way to begin and to perhaps include more of the town’s residents in the book. It makes the reader feel like a part of the town.
I’ve always wondered what it’s like to live in a small town. Most of my years have been spent in Singapore, a city-state (current population 5.3 million), so no small towns there. I spent a year in Brighton, UK, which has according to Wikipedia, a population of over 155,000. And the city I currently live in in the Bay Area has a population of over 200,000, apparently the 95th most densely populated city in the country. Definitely not a ‘everyone knows your name’ place. We previously lived in South San Francisco, population just over 63,000, which makes it the city with the smallest population I’ve lived in.
So I can hardly imagine what living in a town populated by 2,400 people is like. A place where doors are left unlocked. No hospital, no shopping mall, no movie theatre, no stoplights. The high school has just 93 students.
That smallness and somewhat isolated life mystifies me. But the wilderness, the gorgeous scenery, nature at your doorstep all are just enchanting.
Whether small town life puzzles or fascinates you, or perhaps you live it yourself everyday, If you lived here, I’d know your name is an enjoyable read, full of quirky characters and a great community.