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.