In her second book, Heather Lende, a columnist for the Anchorage Daily News and an obituary writer for the paper in her hometown of Haines, offers 15 well-turned essays about living in the shadow of death in a world both harsh and beautiful.
Her own mortality is front and center after she's run over by a truck while bicycling and spends several pain-filled months fighting to get back on her feet. Her mother falls to cancer. Friends die in car accidents, of drowning, of disease, of alcohol. A bear gives up its ghost when Lende, her husband and a Tlingit hunter bait and kill it.
And yet "Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs" (Lende's mother's last words) is an uplifting, even cheerful book. Lende has a knack for subtly illuminating the remarkable in the commonplace, the transcendence in tragedy. She views the world through the lenses of her Episcopalian faith and her love for her family and community. But the steady doses of mortality, sin and gritty local color keep things from getting too sweet.
"I remain surprised that I can cut warm flesh off bone," she writes after field-dressing a mountain goat; something about it reminds her of her own accident. In another essay, she screams at neighbors whose dog has killed her rabbit and chickens, then trudges back to their doorstep to apologize. At times her voice, which alternates between folksy and formal, playful and prayerful, entertaining and elegiac, is reminiscent of Garrison Keillor, Krista Tippett, Tom Bodett, Kathleen Norris and Anne Lamott. But Lende has a freshness that keeps her from being too derivative, and Alaska's geography, history and culture strongly flavor her work.
"You can't have real joy if you don't understand what real sorrow is," she writes. Her essays are shot through with both, as is any life fully lived.