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A Teacher Unfazed By Alaska Bears, Cold


Edited and with an introduction and commentary by Jane Jacobs

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Random House 302 pp., $24

Hannah Breece did not arrive in Alaska young or inexperienced.

When she was first lowered in a rowboat from the deck of the steamboat Dora and transported to the village of Afognak, she already had 20 years of successful teaching behind her, including four years on Indian reservations in the western United States. She had requested an Alaskan placement in 1904 only 37 years after the territory was purchased from Russia, and she got it.

Readers get it, too, in this highly enjoyable firsthand account of an idealistic, but far from naive, teacher. She began her duties where Russian as well as the Native Aleutian language were commonly spoken in the villages.

The book is a thoughtful, well edited account deserving to join the list of letters and memoirs of pioneer women currently being published. Breece survived the cold, the bear encounters, and fierce dog attacks to give the reader respectful portraits of her students and their families.

A collection of old photographs and current maps helps readers place themselves at the scenes of Breece's labors.

True to the wisdom of her time, Breece set out to improve the lives of villagers with book learning as well as lessons in hygiene and American civilization as she understood it.

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She fought against ignorance, disease, and poverty. She lived in drafty cabins and rehabilitated dilapidated schoolrooms. She searched out students and adapted her teaching to their needs as best she perceived them.

Living conditions were challenging: ''At night the temperature in my cottage sometimes fell as low as forty-five degrees below zero,'' she records. ''A mattress alone did not exclude such cold. Below my blankets was a big fur rug of bearskin, and on top of them a large squirrel-skin robe made by Epheme's wife, Agafia. Over that lay a spread of white canvas. Getting up in the morning was not delightful....''

At the start of her tenure, after her perilous descent from the steamboat Dora, Breece found herself the unwelcome guest of Mrs. Pajoman, the teacher she was to replace. Nevertheless, at 8 the next morning, she set out to find her students. She found them in two separate villages, one Aleut, one Russian.

The Russian children soon chased the Aleut children out of the school. Breece describes her handling of the situation. ''I asked the Russian children to tell me about the situation and listened to their scorn and complaints.'' She set about enlisting their help, proposed ways that the school could be ''like one big family,'' and sent the ringleaders to bring back the Aleut pupils. They all returned, much to her surprise.

Jane Jacobs, as the editor of ''A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska,'' has brought to life the teacher's unadorned accounts with her own insightful foreword and carefully researched commentary. Jacobs, great-niece of the author, gives the reader a loving description of her aunt, whom she obviously admires. She follows up on much of the history and detail that Breece left out.

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