When I was still in journalism school, one of my classes required students — who staffed one of the town’s local newspapers — to write an obituary. The prominent assignments typically went to senior reporters with more experience, but it was expected that the fresh group of new reporters would also take on obituaries.
This was always a task that daunted me. I somehow managed to graduate without ever having to write an obituary, and I maintain that I will never be the best person to write an obituary about someone I’ve never met.
Most of the obituaries that run in the Peninsula Clarion are written in advance by members of the deceased’s family or by friends, then submitted to us. This service is undoubtedly convenient for those interested in memorializing their loved ones on broadsheet, however, I sometimes worry the shrinking of local newsrooms means we’re losing the art of crafting an obituary.
It’s for this reason that I found my most recent read — Heather Lende’s “If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name” — a true breath of fresh air. There is something very satisfying about encountering someone who is doing exactly what they should be, and it’s clear Lende is someone who should be writing local obituaries.
Lende is the obituary writer for the Chilkat Valley News in Haines — a town of about 1,900 people as of the 2020 census.
Haines is quite a bit smaller than the central peninsula, but I still found that many of Lende’s comments about working in local journalism rang true. She jokes about friends who preface town gossip with “this is not for publication,” alludes to rivalry between her paper, the Chilkat Valley News, and the Eagle Eye Journal, and mentions the headaches she gives her editor.
All of the book’s roughly 300 pages absolutely radiate Lende’s love for her quirky community. “If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name,” is as much about Lende — there are stories about her trip to Bulgaria to adopt her daughter and her rich faith life — as it is about Haines.
Something super charming is Lende’s inclusion of “Duly Noted” reports taken from the Chilkat Valley News, which are small blurbs about town happenings that offer a glimpse of the loveliness and absurdity that comes with living in a small town. One of my favorites remarked on the length of a local newborn’s name, while another was a local lament about the condition of a gillnet after a humpback whale swam through it.
In almost every chapter, Lende builds a different part of Haines around a resident who’s died — the death of 20-year-old fisherman Olen Nash, for example, to introduce Haines’ commercial fishing community, or the death of Ted Gregg, a founding member of the Lynn Canal Community Players, to talk about how local theater brings the town’s residents together.
“Haines can be a hard place to live, but it’s a good place to die,” she writes in one chapter.
“If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name,” is part memoir, part love letter to Haines and part testament to the power of local journalism. It’s a fun and poignant read with the added bonus of shining a light on one of Alaska’s quaintest towns.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Off the Shelf is a bimonthly literature column written by the staff of the Peninsula Clarion.