Tag Archives: Alaska

FIND THE GOOD: unexpected life lessons from a small-town obituary writer

Back in 2016, while researching book titles that might be of interest for a local book club, I stumbled across – Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons From a Small-Town Obituary Writer. Intrigued, I bought a copy of the tiny book and placed it on my TBR shelf. The reading club, limited to 8 titles a year, didn’t select the book. Time marched on and I forgot about it.

My wonderful husband frequently drives me from our cabin in the quiet North Georgia mountains to the Atlanta area to visit my sister in her nursing home; a stressful four hour round-trip on the high-speed interstate highways. It turned out to be the perfect book to read while hurdling down the highway facing the potential of my own imminent demise.

As suggested by the subtitle, obituaries and/or “life stories” play an important part of each of the 18 brief essays.  It was easy reading that was tinged with humor, compassion and uplifting stories about newly departed neighbors and friends in the author’s hometown of tiny Haines, Alaska. Finding the Good is just that – interviewing those that knew the departed and finding the good in their life story yet not ignoring their less glamorous moments. The point of each story was crafting an obituary that showed their humanness and reflected the fact that their lives mattered to others.

Embedded in one story is the following quote that seems to sum up the book’s message.

People don’t gather after a death to mourn, but rather to reaffirm why life matters and to remember to exult in the only one we’ll ever have. We hold funerals, memorials, celebrations – whatever you want to call them – to seek and to find the heart of the matter of this trip we all Life.

This tiny treasure is a perfect gift for a friend or family member that enjoys celebrating life and community. It was a reminder to me that even the tiniest flower or the solitary nature of a hermit can impact someone else’s life for the better.

Heather Lende has written some 500 obituaries obituaries for the Chilkat Valley News in Haines, Alaska where she has lived for over thirty years. She has also authored many essays and stories, mostly about life and sometimes death in Haines, Alaska that have been distributed widely from The Anchorage Daily News and Christian Science Monitor to NPR and Country Living. She is a former contributing editor at Woman’s Day magazine.  She has also authored three books: Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-town Obituary Writer (2015),Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs (2010), If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: The News From Small-town Alaska (2005). (NY Times bestseller)

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THE SUN IS A COMPASS : a 4000 mile journey into the Alaskan Wilds

There is always a certain level of risk involved in negotiations with wild places and wild elements. Even those places that seem tame, or familiar. . . The key is finding a balance – trying to determine whether the risk is worth the reward. Caroline Van Hemert

Caroline Van Hemert and her husband, Patrick Farrell have reached a pivotal point in their lives. Life-long naturalists,  experienced wilderness trekkers and residents of Alaska have found themselves defined by their jobs and miserable. Caroline, after years of academic study is a research wildlife biologist “locked” inside a science lab peering into a microscope. Patrick, a home builder, yearns to see the trees still rooted in nature and simmers with repressed wanderlust.

They now face the end of what I call their “immortal” years. That spry time where you dream of what you want to be when you grow up and live life to its fullest pushing decisions that must be made aside for the time being. Unencumbered by children or full-time careers, Caroline and Patrick were free to dream and travel the world at leisure to experience the thrill of discovering what lies around the next bend.

But now they have reached their mid-thirties and they discover themselves sitting at the top of the roller-coaster staring down at all those weighty thoughts they put off thinking about.  Do we want a family? Have we reached that point in our lives where we live day-to-day repeating our activities like Ground Hog Day? They realize that they can’t answer those questions without taking time off to reflect. They are still strong and capable of physically challenging adventures and if they are to take one last fling at living life on the edge, it is now or never.

A long neglected plan created by the duo to travel over 4000 miles from the rain forests of Washington state to a remote point on the frozen shores of the Alaskan Arctic Ocean was dusted off, reexamined and with the help of family and friends carefully laid out. They were planning to “go where no man had gone before”. Traveling wild areas, some uncharted and vaguely described on maps. Testing their mettle in ways they could not have imagined. Meeting strangers and experiencing kindness and generosity unimagined.

Armchair adventurers, you are in for a treat. Caroline has a gift for writing that will have you breathless with excitement, slack jawed with awe, and dumbfounded that anyone would take on such a challenge to face starvation, marauding bears, and extreme weather conditions. Her descriptions of awesome beauty found in a single flower or the burst of birdsong flood your mind. The words so carefully chosen that the reader is engaged fully in Caroline’s journey physically and emotionally. She lets it all hang out and it is her honesty and sincerity that makes the book so special. The uninitiated backwoods traveler will be surprised that within the isolation and raw weather extremes, the mind slips into a zone where the issues that led you into the wilderness will surface giving true meaning to the phrase- finding yourself. We share her tears, laughter, joy, sorrow, thrill of discoveries, and love of life shared with her partner and husband, a man whose incredible skills seem to good to be true.  Everyone needs a man that can look at a fallen log and see a canoe – and makes it so!

The epilogue is icing on the cake; it would seem she found the answers to her mental questions. Recommended reading.

ARC provided by Edelweiss in exchange for my opinion and review.

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Sergeant Allbright,

You are a hard man to find. I am Earl Harlan.
My son, Bo, wrote many letters home about his friendship with you. I thank you for that.
In his last letter, he told me that if anything happened to him in that piece of shit place [Vietnam], he wanted you to have his land up here in Alaska.
It isn’t much. Forty acres with a cabin that needs fixing. But a hardworking man can lives off the land up here, away from the crazies and the hippies and the mess in the lower Forty-Eight.

Ernt Allbright, unlike his friend, Bo, did return to his family after years in a Vietnamese POW camp; scarred in so many ways.

Ernt and Cora Allbright along with their daughter, Leni (Lenora) represent a family struggling to make a postwar life together; and failing miserably. The happy go-lucky Ernt failed to return from Vietnam. In his stead, a surly, dis-tempered shell of his former self arrived. Unable to tame his demons, Ernt has developed a chronic history of unemployment and alcohol abuse. But these failings are not the worst of his new personality traits.

When something triggers his inner demons, Cora, adept at hiding the abuse from Leni,  becomes his punching bag. Much like other abusive marriages, a sweet honeymoon and serial apologies diminishes the beatings. The cycle repeats itself over and over; exacerbated by the dark of night.

For Ernt, Earl Harlan’s letter and offer of a remote refuge seems like the perfect answer to all his troubles; a promise of brighter future. A place where he can make a life without interference of any kind. A place he is sure that he can be free of those things that make him fly off the handle.

“Think of it,” Dad said, lifted out of his seat by enthusiasm. “A house that’s ours. That we own. . . We have dreamed of it for years, Cora. Live a simpler life away from all the bullshit down here. We could be free.”

With little regard for the ambivalent feelings of his wife and child, Ernt packs the family into their beat-up VW bus, hoists a flag -Alaska Or Bust – and heads to what he sees as nirvana. A family about as prepared for the harsh subsistence life as a cub scout leading an Everest excursion.

Arriving in Alaska,  they are dumbstruck by the vastness and the beauty. The family stops at Large Marge Birdsall’s Trading Post/General Store looking for directions to their new home. Ernt announces proudly that they are going to be living full time on the island at Bo Harlan’s old place! It doesn’t take long for Large Marge, a former big city attorney, to spot Ernt’s blatant ineptitude and an ample slice of arrogance. She also notes two women not excited about living in Alaska.

Bo Harlan’s paradise is really a run-down one room shack on a piece of land inaccessible  at low tide. The isolation and the catastrophic condition of the land and buildings move the locals to provide advice and help; they know the Allbrights have a slim to none chance of surviving the fast approaching winter. In time and with guidance from new friends, Cora and Leni take to the subsidence lifestyle like a duck to water.

Ernt, on the other hand resents the interference and his anger feeds his paranoia and violent nature. Ernt reaching a new boiling point turns to Bo Harlan’s father and brothers, survivalists preparing for a nuclear rapture. Earl and Ernt form a dark friendship that threatens the lives of everyone on the island. Despite fellow islands holding  a “come to Jesus” moment with Ernt, his hatred smolders.

Back at the homestead, Cora pays the price of Ernt’s wrath. The beatings look to get worse as the perpetual dark of winter drives Ernt to new heights of meanness. And it does. Cora and Leni face the truth that someday they are going to have to make life altering decisions. . .But not yet says, Cora. I love him.

Leni looked at her mother’s beaten, bruised face, the rag turning red with her blood.
You’re saying it’s your fault?
You’re too young to understand. He didn’t mean to do that. He just – loves me too much sometimes.
He MEANT it.

The years pass. Ernt finds employment that takes him away from home to the the oil fields. He does send money home. He returns for brief periods each year; always ready to disrupt island life; everyone holds their breath until he leaves again.

Leni fumbles through adolescence. She falls in love with a rich neighbor’s son. Cora finds life at the Alaska extremes and subsistence life suits her. The girls make friends with some of the islanders and enjoy what they would likely describe – a normal life.

Related imageUntil. Ernt is fired from the oil fields and arrives home unexpectedly to discover his rich unmarried neighbor sitting at his kitchen table playing cards with the girls. He implodes at the sight of his wife enjoying herself.

All the good that still lives inside Ernt is sucked into a black hole. When he explodes pure evil is released.

I fell in love with Large Marge and her over sized personality and big heart. My favorite character was Leni. And I was glad that Cora found moments of strength and happiness with life in Alaska. was a little disappointed that most of the characters were not fully developed; the exception being Leni.

Readers should take time to enjoy the beauty, expansiveness and surreal extreme of Alaska. Lay back on the ground and watch the sky in multicolor. Kristin Hannah, having lived in Alaska, knows how to describe it to perfection.

So many themes! Alcoholism, untreated PTSD, domestic abuse, abortion, subsistence living, Alaska, sense of community and more. Any book club should enjoy picking the book apart!






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Quality of Silence

plain netgalley

eBook 978-1-101-90368-1







Ruby impatiently waits for the plane to land in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Dad is currently in the Arctic photographing wildlife in
the dark winter near the Arctic Circle. Ruby and her father, Matt, have been planning this Christmas visit for some time chatting frequently on their special blog.

She has learned much about survival in the harsh conditions from Dadstormy Alaska road and she is ready to show him her Arctic clothing, gloves and goggles.  The journey from the U.K. has been long and she is ready to throw herself in his arms.

Mom is circumspect about this visit.  She and Dad have drifted apart after years of disagreement over care for 10-year old Ruby.  Yasmin fears these protracted visits to remote areas of the world have created a rift in their marriage that might not be overcome.  Although Ruby and Matt have deepened their bond through frequent online communication, Matt and Yasmin have not been shared much of their lives for quite some time.

Although both parents are equally concerned about Ruby’s education and socialization, they differ on how best to prepare her for her future. Ruby has been deaf since birth.signlanguage005

Ruby is highly intelligent, precocious and highly adaptive.  She has a gregarious nature hidden in her silent world that she desperately wants the world to see. Her disinterest in the typical 10-year old angst alienates her from her school mates.  Ruby has no friends and is bullied by peers.

She withdraws into her silent world preferring to communicate through sign language and her laptop.   Much to Yasmin’s consternation she refuses to “use her mouth voice” to reduce her isolation.  Her retreat into social media and her laptop to express herself disturbs Yasmin.

As Yasmin learns that the news about Matt, Ruby uses her finely honed skills of observation to try and learn why her father has not arrived.

Matt was staying in a remote Alaskan village that suffered a terrible fire and everyone perished.   The ruins were searched and Matt’s wedding ring was returned to Yasmin as proof of his death.

Shielding Ruby from this news, Yashmin refuses to believe he is dead and can’t believe the authorities haven’t launched a rescue mission.  Unable to convince anyone to help her, Yasmin begins an ill-advised journey with Ruby in tow on the Dalton Highway, the “ice-road” to this village to rescue Matt.

Yasmin’s story, told in the third person, is nicely woven into Ruby’s first person account of the journey as it unfolds.  I felt like I was riding shotgun with Ruby experiencing the unimaginable isolation of the wilderness.  As it becomes apparent there is a dark and sinister plot to keep Yasmin from reaching the village, I felt the despondency and regret Yasmin feels at jeopardizing Ruby’s safety.   Ruby’s deafness and inability to hear danger terrifies Yasmin.

Lupton grafts the cold into your bones and chills your mind.  When Yasmin puts the snow chains on the vehicle in a howling -50 degree blizzard, I shuddered.   The closer Yasmin gets to the Arctic Circle, the more that danger from nature and man threatens their survival, Ruby and her mother find ways to overcome the odds.  Totally unrealistic and highly entertaining.

Communication, whether verbally, through sign language or the application of technology, was critical in this story.   Cold weather and geography can eliminate that false sense of security provided by a cell phone.

There were times on the ice-road that I wanted to move the story along but having driven at night on icy mountainous roads myself, I know that fear prolongs the experience.

Fracking, greed and environment issues play pivotal roles but so do altruism, faith and love.  There’s the usual cast of bad and good guys to thwart or help the girls.   The conclusion wraps things up nicely, just as predictable as the next snow storm in Alaska.

Highly recommended.

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