Review of ‘A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska: The Story of Hannah Breece’

A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska: The Story of Hannah Breece
Edited by Jane Jacobs
Random House

When she was 11 years old, Jane Jacobs trailed along with her great-aunt Hannah Breece as she paid a visit to a nursing home called, regrettably, the Home for the Friendless. Hannah had come to see a former colleague, and despite the grim setting, the two women soon were laughing and talking of their adventures decades earlier, when both had been dispatched by the Department of the Interior to serve as schoolteachers in Alaska. Eleven-year-old Jane retained only one sentence of their conversation: "He was rotten with syphilis."

It is fortunate, then, that Hannah Breece's family prevailed upon her to write an account of her 14 years in Alaska: otherwise this dubious — though memorabl &30151; -snippet of oral history would be Hannah's entire legacy.

It took some years for the memoir to come to light. Hannah's niece first attempted to edit the "maddeningly unassembled" manuscript half a century ago, but she didn't get very far. "For one thing," she admits, "I lacked sufficient craftsmanship and knew it." Today Jane Jacobs is a renowned urban theorist &#-151; the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Systems of Survival — and apparently she now has craftsmanship to spare. Her affectionate introduction and helpful commentary provide the historical context necessary to appreciate the story and fill in where Hannah's sense of discretion leaves a void.

"To be openly proper and conventional yet also openly daring is a way of being that was seldom available to women in the past," Jacobs writes. "Some who did pull off this trick without being either aristocratic or rich were Americans on the frontier. Hannah Breece was one of these women.

"To her great-nephews and great-nieces, of whom I was one, she had the glamour of a storybook heroine. She camped out with Indians! She held a hundred wild dogs at bay by herself and escaped them! She traveled in a kayak wearing bear intestines! A bear almost ate her right from her bed, and this time the dogs saved her!

"Hannah Breece was no rash or spry young thing in a band of spry young things when she experienced exotic perils. She was a middle-aged woman essentially on her own. Her job was serious and responsible: teaching Aleuts, Kenais, Athabaskans, Eskimos and people of mixed native and European blood in Alaska from 1904 to 1918. She was forty-five years old when she went to Alaska and fifty-nine when she completed her assignments there, a fact to remember when we observe her, in her memoir of those years, scaling cliffs, falling through ice or outracing a forest fire. That was part of the daring. She did those things encumbered by long and voluminous skirts and petticoats. That was part of the propriety."

The popular view in those days held that Alaska was no place for a lady-no matter how daring she happened to be. Purchased from Russia only 37 years earlier in a deal negotiated by Secretary of State William H. Seward, the territory still was regarded by many as "Seward's Folly." During Hannah's 14 years there the population never rose above 65,000, and if her account is to be credited, nearly all of these people were colorful eccentrics and adventurers. Rugged pioneers, blind sages, penniless widows, hardheaded clerics, village mystics and a mysterious "Reindeer Man" trail freely through these pages.

Of all of them, Hannah herself is easily the most engaging. Over the course of her 14 years in Alaska, Hannah pushes farther and farther into the interior, braving fresh hardships with each new assignment. "The people out there by themselves, groping for the light, appealed to me," she writes. Hannah has little patience for self-dramatization, so when we suddenly find her plunging through a hole in a frozen lake or nearly being swept away in a fast-moving current, she dispenses the details and remarks upon her own survival in the brisk, no-nonsense tone of a schoolteacher eager to carry on with the geography lesson. Occasionally she allows herself to dwell briefly on her rigors and privations, as when she describes winter at Iliamna, a village near Alaska's largest lake, where temperatures could fall to 45 degrees below zero inside her cottage. "Getting up in the morning was not delightful," Hannah concedes, "but I kept my parka and fur boots beside the bed and first thing slipped into them. Then I lit the two fires in my rooms, a quick operation since the fuel was all ready and a bit of kerosene or a lighted candle set the wood quickly ablaze."

For all of that, Hannah admires the "wild grandeur" of Alaska's winter landscape, although her relief is evident when the snow finally melts: "Summer and fall were lovely seasons," she writes. "The summer dawn came as early as two in the morning. . . . The sky was so blue, the grass so green, the air warm and mild. Every stump was covered with fern-like moss, and air-moss floating from the trees gave the forests a tropical air. Dandelions . . . were as large, brilliant and wide-petalled as asters."

Alaska's native traditions and folklore also hold a particular fascination for her. "They were superstitious about the whale hunt," she writes of the men on Wood (now Woody) Island, near Kodiak Island. "While the men were on the water, women were forbidden to cast their eyes toward the sea, so every woman had to stay closely indoors. If a whale was wounded and a woman looked at it, they believed, one of the hunters was sure to be killed and the whale itself would escape. They also believed that when the men started out, a tiny man no bigger than a finger ran on top of the water after the bidarkas [kayak-like boats]. If he caught up to one and climbed on it, the man in that bidarka would surely be killed."

During her time in Alaska, Hannah had frequent correspondence with Sheldon Jackson, head of the Alaska division of the Bureau of Education in the Department of the Interior. A Presbyterian missionary, Jackson came to be known as the "Bishop of All Beyond" for his efforts to bring civilization to Alaska-a cause he apparently viewed as a holy crusade. Jane Jacobs came to take a dim view of Jackson while editing her great-aunt's memoir and describes him as a man bent on "expunging native ways, root and branch, and exerting total control."

Against this background, the compassion of Hannah Breece's teaching methods seems all the more remarkable. "Jackson thought in terms of control, Hannah in terms of nurturing," writes Jacobs. "She was eager to open her pupils' eyes to the great world beyond their hermetic ken through study of geography, stories and pictures of other people and how they lived; nature study that went beyond the economic and practical; introduction of new games and toys, evidence that people far away knew and cared about them."

Hannah Breece died in 1940 at the age of 80 after a long retirement in Oregon and Pennsylvania, during which she occasionally gave lectures on her Alaskan experiences. For all the richness of this material, Jacobs originally hesitated to publish her great-aunt's manuscript: "Some of her assumptions and assertions, to my mind, were imperialist, chauvinist and racist-white man's burden stuff." Now, more than 50 years later, Jacobs has come to regard these elements as necessary to the story, inherent to the times and central to understanding what possessed Hannah to go to Alaska in the first place. It must be said that by the end of her memoir, Hannah has clearly begun to register a certain ambivalence about her role.

The result is a thoughtful and entertaining memoir. "I was glad," writes Hannah, "that I had had a small part in blazing the way for better things in this most beautiful, most wonderful land."

After all, as her great-niece concludes, "What more could a pioneering teacher ask?"

Daniel Stashower is a freelance writer who is based in Washington, D.C.

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