Heather Lende lives in Haines, Alaska, a town of 2,400 somewhat eccentric folks. She writes obituaries for the local weekly newspaper...

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“If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska”
by Heather Lende
Algonquin Books, 294 pp., $23.95

Heather Lende lives in Haines, Alaska, a town of 2,400 somewhat eccentric folks. She writes obituaries for the local weekly newspaper — that is, when she’s not running marathons, smoking salmon, canning vegetables, ice skating on crystal-clear lakes or tagging along on her husband’s goat-hunting missions.

Haines is a town some 90 miles north of Juneau that has no stoplight or mail delivery. In fact, much of the town’s business is conducted at the post office when folks stop by to get their mail. Lende has penned a book chronicling her life in Haines and the deaths that she writes about in the Chilkat Daily News. (She also writes a column for the Anchorage Daily News and is a commentator on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.”)

“If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name” tells readers several stories, some Lende’s own. She writes of the five children she raises in Haines; of the $300 her husband, Chip, spent on a dozen cream puffs auctioned to help a child with cancer; of her race down the hazardous mountain road to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, before her son’s appendix burst.

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Others chronicle the town and its people. Lende recounts the death of Speedy Joe, who wore nothing but a red union suit and a hat that he never took off.

There’s the tale of Lende’s friend who built a casket for her beloved mother, the terror of a family who lost a son in a fishing accident, the deaths of friends in airplane crashes. She visits the mourning family to write her obituary, often crying with them.

At one funeral of a popular youth basketball coach, said Lende, the pastor invited everyone to come up to the front of the coffin and “sink a basket for Jesus.”

Of what she’s gained from writing about life and death in a small town, Lende writes: “I thought there was some order in the universe that made each death happen for a reason. I know that from dust we come and to dust we will return and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.”

Susan Gilmore is a reporter for the metro section of The Seattle Times.