A lot has happened since Heather Lende introduced us to the small town of Haines, Alaska, in her best-selling 2005 memoir If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name. First, Lende was (literally) hit by a truck, suffering a broken pelvis just as she was about to begin her book tour. The following year, her mother died of leukemia. Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs celebrates the resilience of ordinary people, gathered together to help one another with the business of living and dying.
As a columnist for the Anchorage Daily News, Lende’s beat is small-town Alaska, and she shows us how her community functions as a source of strength for its residents. In one story, a local Tlingit Indian carves a new totem pole called “Yei eek kwa neix,” or “You Are Going to Get Well.” When over 140 people, including a recovering Lende, help raise the pole, we see how a community coming together, even in sorrow, can offer healing.
Reading this memoir is like listening to an old friend; Lende’s voice is conversational, frequently addressing the reader directly. Her stories are digressive, even circular, as an anecdote about yoga prompts a story about a hospice patient smoking cigarettes while dying of cancer. The effect is pleasantly intimate, as if we were sitting next to her on the Juneau ferry.
Lende has been compared to both Anne Lamott and Annie Dillard; she is a writer who attends to both everyday grace and the natural world, and her Christian faith is explicit but never overbearing. Her Alaska is a harsh landscape infused with sublimity: The winter mountains, summer dusks, smoked salmon and bald eagles all create a palpable sense of Alaskan life. While Lende’s Alaska is not a paradise by any means, it is a good place for ordinary people to live with one another.