I grew up on Garrison Keillor’s “News from Lake Wobegon,” often enjoyed on summer trips up to the small town where my parents grew up. The combination instilled in me a love for stories set in small town America. Now I have a dedicated shelf in my living room for “books with that small town feel.” It features some of my favorite authors, including Kent Haruf, Marilynne Robinson, and, of course, Garrison Keillor. Especially when life is chaotic or after reading something difficult and heavy, I like to reach for one of these or seek out a new addition. So it’s really no surprise that I loved If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News from Small Town Alaska by Heather Lende. As my wife commented when she started reading it, “This is such a Jason book.”
Lende’s style is ‘real life Lake Wobegon’ but with a greater focus on family, faith, death/life, and gender. As the obituary writer in the small town of Haines, Alaska, she conducts in-depth interviews with the family and friends of the recently deceased before writing detailed personal sketches. She’s brought that keen eye for personal details and reflective tone to the essays collected here. But what made them really pop for me was the element of memoir: these are non-fiction stories that ultimately reflect her (ongoing) lived experience. So we’re not just reading about faith, but about her faith; not just death, but the deaths of those she knew and loved; not just what it might mean to join your husband in hunting, but what it means for her to climb a mountain, participate in killing and skinning a goat, and carry the meat back down the mountain with her own proud and grateful husband.
It would probably be best to read the essays at intervals, allowing time to preserve the freshness of Lende’s voice. But it’s impossible to set the book aside on first reading. It will certainly be a new go-to book when I want something with that ‘small town feel.” I already know which essay I’ll re-read first. It’s the story of a day in her life as told through an attempt to make the perfect egg salad sandwich. One of the best pieces of food writing I’ve read and a wonderful meditation on the nature of daily life.