Friday Reads: A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska

Last night I finished A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska: the Story of Hannah Breece – edited and with Introduction and Commentary by Jane Jacobs (Vintage Books, 1997).

Old Alaska contains the journals and memoir of Hannah Breece, an unmarried teacher born and raised in Pennsylvania who chose to travel to Alaska and establish schools in native communities between 1904 and 1918.  The journals were not originally written for publication, but Jacobs (who is also Breece’s great-niece) worked with Jacobs during the final years of her life to fill in gaps and transform an already interesting memoir into something truly unique.

Jacobs describes Breece as a combination of an adventuresome spirit and a model of propriety. (She was also an outspoken advocate of temperance, which ruffled a few feathers in 1900s Alaska). The juxtaposition creates some memorable moments, such as Breece’s decisions to climb down slippery rope ladders in full skirts and to “drive off” a hostile bear by putting out her lamp and sitting quietly in the dark. Despite her traditional sensibilities, Breece was no shrinking violet – she forded rivers in flood (falling in at least once), stood up to tribal chiefs and drove off a pack of wild dogs with a stick she picked up off the ground.

During her 14 years in Alaska, Breece also established at least three new schools, made contact with native Alaskans who had never seen a white woman or received any formal education (but wanted it the moment they understood what she had to offer), and grew to love the people she served in a  very personal way.

In addition to Breece’s engaging and honest style, the memoir offers a (and not always flattering) portrait of Breece’s worldview and prejudices (or more accurately, the prejudices of her time, some of which Breece herself overcame during her years in the Alaskan wild).

I’m filing this one under “Highly Recommended” for anyone who enjoys memoir, history, adventure writing (the voice and pacing make this read more like an adventure story than a standard memoir) or Alaska. I picked my copy up at a used book sale (thanks, SPCA!) but it’s also available via Amazon in both print and Kindle editions.