Post Your Opinion
The Jane Jacobs of the Arctic - Robin Roger speaks with Jacobs
by Robin Roger

In 1904 Hannah Breece was lowered from a steamship into a rowboat and taken though crashing waves and torrents of rain to the island of Afognak, her first post as a teacher of natives in Alaska. This arrival set the tone for her adventures over the next eighteen years. In 1937, aged seventy-seven, she collected the letters she had sent home, and with the help of her great-niece Jane, tried to turn them into a publishable manuscript. The project failed.

This September, I spoke with the great-niece, who is now called Jane Jacobs. In 1993, she had taken another look at her great-aunt's manuscript, and saw how exciting it was. In a sort of posthumous collaboration, she edited and annotated it, and then, after travelling to Alaska to track Hannah through the archives, she wrote a commentary to complement the memoir.

In conversation, Jacobs says of her great-aunt much that is true of herself: "Hannah had an interest in the concrete. She's not an ideologist. . She's really thoughtful. She was no dummy in any way. She was down-to-earth..Hannah would not have reacted to today's world with generalities. I think she would have tried to instill a different attitude, case by case. She would not be making didactic fulminations about `whither society' if she were alive today."

Fifty-five years after her death, Hannah Breece's book has appeared. It has aged well from the delay; untimeliness makes it quite timely. She is a woman of the past with whom women of today should reckon.

Like other great memoirs by women on the colonial fringe, such as Jill Ker Conway's The Road from Coorain, Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa, and Beryl Markham's West with the Night, Breece's book transports us forcefully to another world. It gives us the portrait of a stalwart, intelligent, daring, and capable woman of a sort we rarely meet now. Not only was I impressed by her patriotism, resourcefulness, humour, stamina, altruism, devotion, and persistence; I was often struck by what she accomplished as a single woman operating in a man's world, long before the first claim for affirmative action. She travelled among men by dog-sled in an Alaskan winter wilderness, and never mentioned the chilly climate. This was a woman who, when stranded in a community where none of the adults spoke English, had the presence of mind to recruit a small boy to act as interpreter with the male elders, making the passing observation, "Heaven bless little boys." She was sometimes the first and only white woman to move into a native settlement, and did so with confidence because she had concluded that Alaska was a thoroughly chivalrous place. Men there were to be trusted, at least where her well-being was concerned. As if routinely, she put herself in extreme situations, to serve people she considered less fortunate than herself, not to blaze a trail.

Feminists are apt to claim women like Hannah as a role model, but she didn't set out to be one. Watching her operate with little but her own resources to fall back on has to make us wonder whether current efforts to include women, increase our access to formerly male arenas, sensitize the opposite sex to our needs, and protect us from harassment isn't actually softening and enervating us instead of empowering us. Hannah demonstrates that to make change, to be outstanding, to achieve great things, requires personal virtues that come from within. Often the traits that give her her greatest strength are ones now held to be outmoded and illiberal, like her almost transcendent patriotism and her wilful rejection of self-reflection.

When Jacobs and I met to discuss the book, I arrived with a mental image that blended the intellectual titan I consider the author of Systems of Survival to be, with the stalwart and feisty pioneer I picture when I think of Hannah Breece. But with her fly-away bobbed white hair and well-worn corduroy jumper, Jacobs projects the sunny, rumpled warmth of a loving nursery school teacher, rather than seeming to be an imposing authority. She takes great nostalgic pleasure in discussing this book, which was a cherished possession of her mother, who lived to 101. Though Jacobs was the one to bring it to publication, there is a sense that it was a project of the whole Breece clan.

"After my great-aunt died," Jacobs recalled, "I began writing other books, and raising children. But my mother kept saying, `You must get back to Aunt Hannah's manuscript.' Then my brother had it photocopied, which preserved it for posterity. Then the younger generation read the photocopies, and they were all interested in it Every generation had their part in valuing her story."

When she did get back to editing the manuscript, she found to her delight that "the Hannah in the memoir and the Hannah I knew were absolutely similar. I met her a few times as a small child, then as a late adolescent. Then I worked on the manuscript with her when I was twenty-one."

Working on the book brought Hannah back to life for Jacobs, which may explain why she does not see her as a counter-model to today's women, or any other kind of emblem. She is simply her wonderful great Aunt, and a treasure in herself: feisty, resourceful, daring, and independent. We discussed some of the traits we found most striking about her.

From her opening words-"When Uncle Sam sent me to Alaska in 1904"-Hannah's bond with her country is present in her story, as a powerful and sustaining allegiance that hardly seems possible today. In moments of crisis, she draws great strength from the mere thought of her citizenship. While being given the royal run-around by a pompous Russian bishop, she stands her ground by asking herself "whether I was really not in Russia instead of the good old United States. I found I was not in Russia and with that I found my spunk." Another local authority gets a tongue-lashing from Hannah from which he "slunk away abashed as if an American woman was a quantity to be reckoned with."

Hannah's patriotism, according to Jacobs, consisted of pride in her country reinforced by her own natural piety and a powerful confidence in herself, bred from a kind of American know-how. She came to see the capable self-sufficiency learned in her own family as a national trait.

"I can infer her upbringing from what I know about my grandmother's," Jacobs explained. "She was Hannah's older sister, and when she was twelve, she decided she'd like to be a teacher, because she saw a pretty little school-house in the country that she thought she'd like to have. She was certain she could handle it, so she went straight to the superintendent of the schools and asked for it. He said, `But that's our toughest school in the whole district. They'd eat you alive. You go back to school and graduate and then I'll give you a school.' She did just that, and began to teach at sixteen. But she felt she was ready at twelve."

Growing up in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania in the 1860s, as one of twelve siblings, Hannah acquired an impressive range of survival skills, which she used to great effect in Alaska. She transforms her classrooms with sewing skills, gathers berries in huge quantities and cultivates fruits and vegetables to feed her students, and stretches her provisions with amazing ingenuity. "She didn't learn these things from books-or by picking them up in a course. They were required in her family," Jacobs pointed out. "Hannah reminds me of a mother who always has what's needed, and could pull anything out of her bag. Once she even pulled out a watermelon!" Another time, she happened to have an organ with her, so while waiting for a boat, she persuaded group of men to join her in a pick-up Sunday service, complete with hymnals.

Far more impressive than what she has in her handbag is Breece's inner strength, summoned to endure constant adversity. After a twelve-mile trek through ice and snow that leaves her feet blue-black and oozing blood, she finds that the only place for her to sleep is on a mat spread out on a store counter. After ten days of prolonged agony from her feet, she is forced to retrace her steps through country thick with predatory bears. She comments, "Once...I came near pitying myself in my disappointment. Of all moods I think self-pity the most harmful. To combat it, I turned partly around on my horse and took in the scene...It was a comical sight...I comforted myself that when I reached the cabin...I would cartoon the whole outfit, for I had paper and watercolours in the hamper on the pony."

Skill, industriousness, and humour are her chief weapons in the war against self-pity. Even in the most extreme situations, she manages to have a good laugh at herself. "What happened to my dignity?" she asks herself, as she clings to a log to avoid being whisked downstream to her death. "The fix I was in was so ridiculous I laughed."

She maintains her composure in a series of disasters, which would mire the toughest among us in a trough of self-pity. She falls through the ice in the dark, and is only pulled to safety after being immersed up to her neck; she is attacked by a pack of a hundred savage sled dogs, beating them off with a stick; she is menaced in her tent by a man-eating bear; she loses her balance while crossing a river, plunging into a treacherous current; the steamer in which she is travelling capsizes in mysterious pyramidal waves; she slips and breaks her leg while she is completely alone, and drags herself into her house before passing out; she is stranded between connecting boats for twenty-five days and waits without a bed or much human contact; the temperature in her cottage regularly falls to forty-five degrees below zero (Fahrenheit); she travels with natives in treacherous waters wearing a garment made of bear-intestines; she is grounded in a river channel with no rescue in sight; she is left in utter isolation on the edge of a precipice while her guide goes off to find the rest of her party, with the warning that she must not move for fear of avalanche. Only this ordeal brings her within a glance of self-pity.

"I experienced some states of mind it is hard for me to describe. Of course, first there was the view; one mountain peak beyond another, some jagged and sharp, other rounded and dome-like. A sky of grey, an earth of marble. Such a space demonstrates the utter smallness of one human being. It is one thing to say this, but actually to feel it is devastating. A desolating loneliness filled my soul. This was followed by fear. I wondered if wolves would appear. With an effort I shook that off and with all my will I determined to enjoy this splendour on the top of the earth so that the wait would become a memory of wonder and pleasure instead of a lonely horror to disturb my dreams."

Her final stand against self-pity is not to deny her emotions, but to dismiss them. She also banishes self-absorption. Surely this distinguishes her sharply from us today, who live in a world of psychobabble. Not because she is unaware of her feelings, or that she avoids the more negative ones, but because she believes they have a limited place in the way she operates. We cannot say what psychic struggles she may have experienced, but we can see her sustain body-blows and set-backs time and again, finding ways to carry on. Modern readers have come to expect some description of the inner life, for us to understand a writer, but this absence of self-analysis gives us more, not less, understanding of Hannah. She shows us herself in action, engaged in the exotic and complex world around her, all carefully described in minute detail. In her encounter with the world, not her encounter with herself, we come to know her. This only enriches the text. The vocabulary of the emotions is not nearly as rich as the language of action, oddly enough, and the most evocative writing often dwells in detail on the outward surface of things.

Hannah's account is also refreshingly free from the modern preoccupation with relationships. Neither love or friendship seems to enter her life, and though she is included in every community, and highly valued at that, she appears to go her way without sustaining bonds. Whether she had such connections, but chose not to mention them, or actually lived in a state of cordial independence, we cannot tell, but either way, her silence on these matters is striking. Is it possible that a character informed by transcendent values such as patriotism, faith, and altruism, could live a rich life without the support of friends and family that we believe indispensable? Jacobs felt that Hannah's satisfaction in life was explained in large measure by the rewards of her work.

"She didn't go to Alaska thinking of her own needs, but there's no doubt that she met her needs through her work. We meet our needs to greater extent than we tend to acknowledge in the work that we do, and Hannah's work was very vital to her. Today, women can develop their work in the way few women in Hannah's day could. But she had the opportunity."

Hannah has acute powers of observation, a lyrical appreciation of nature, keen aesthetic judgement, and a probing, analytical mind. In particular, her observations about native culture and the need for delicacy in American educational intervention, are strikingly subtle and sophisticated.

"I want to draw a line between `whitizing' and civilizing them," comments this woman who also retained an iron-clad belief in American superiority: "I have always been careful when working among inferior races to convey to them that I have their interests at heart and love and respect them as people, but that I do not come among them to sink to their level but to uplift them....I am superior to an uneducated native woman and give her to understand that I realize it."

Though such sentiments are off-putting today, we see that they did not prevent Hannah from genuinely appreciating Alaskan natives. Their crafts, their oral traditions, and their technological innovations earn her praise. We see her examining an exhibit of Alaskan artifacts and pondering "how our own inventors have all civilization to back them up when they make something tangible which has first existed only in their minds. They have seen parts of what they will use to make something new. They have mathematical knowledge and all types of subtle measurements to draw upon. But inventions by people of primitive races lacked these multiple points of contact. I was impressed by the ways these inventions had been contrived to overcome hard circumstances, and also by the values they expressed."

Would that all bureaucrats in the American educational system-then or now-balanced respect for the natives with confidence in the American way. Hannah's opposition to the educational authorities is the hidden tension that runs through the memoir, so faintly hinted at that it can only be discerned between the lines, according to Jacobs.

"Her amazing distinction between `whitizing' and `civilizing' wasn't shared by most people in the government; she was finding herself more and more at odds with them. In the last part of her stay in Alaska she wanted to be in the south for a while because American education had gone on there the longest. She was obviously quite disillusioned about the idea of sending natives away to residential schools somewhere else-and she was right-but why was she right? Because she was looking at really what happened. She wasn't ruined by abstraction! She could have picked up on the windy policies about these things. I don't think the government or any of the people who did formulate these policies and thought they knew what was best, drew on her experience or knowledge. She was completely ignored."

Jacobs speculates, probably correctly, the Breece's alarm at the impact of US educational policies, as well as other indignities perpetrated by whites on natives, accounts for the disappointing flatness that overtakes the final chapters of Hannah's book. But it is only this depressed tone that hints at what she was experiencing, for she was determined not to describe the degradation of the natives in words that might fall into the hands of bigots. Here is an instance where another by-gone virtue-discretion-is somewhat regrettable. For it is clear that Hannah understood the devastation wrought by Western temptations such as alcohol (she was an ardent prohibitionist as a result of her observations) and experiments such as residential schools. Speaking out might have been better.

Instead, she tried to show the natives in a state of progress. She describes the many minor victories of life in the classroom: illiterate children who learn to read; hungry children who get something to eat; deprived children enjoying a toy; dirty children learning the habits of hygiene. How she manages to achieve so much, Hannah does not really say. Nor does she state her own philosophy of education. A School Teacher in Old Alaska is not really about education. It's about a teacher, and it shows her teaching.

"It's a strange thing to say about a teacher, but Hannah wasn't didactic," Jacobs pointed out. "She loved teaching because of the potential of her students, and she met every situation as it arose in order to develop that potential. The writer John Holt says that students learn, teachers don't teach. Hannah would have agreed with Holt."

Although Jacobs and I constituted a two-woman Hannah Breece admiration society, often citing the same incidents from the book, she did not believe her great-aunt to be quite so unusual as I do.

"We have a somewhat skewed vision that women didn't do Hannah's kind of thing very often. It's been emphasized to us. But all the time now, stories are coming out about women who did remarkable things in the past. Beatrix Potter was really ahead of anybody as a biologist of fungi, for example. Hannah used to visit other retired women teachers who she had known in Alaska, which makes you wonder-how many such remarkable people were scattered across the country? There were far more than have been acknowledged. It often struck me while I was working on this book. How many families have manuscripts like this tucked away in a drawer?"

When her daughter asked to see Hannah's manuscript a couple of years ago, Jacobs took another look at it and "got such a bang out of it, I just decided it should be published. Editing it was probably the three happiest months of my working life. And when I did the research in Alaska, I found myself wishing I had a whole extra life to live to be a historian. It's just so exciting to work with raw materials. When I found [more] letters in the archives, I nearly flipped!"

Jacobs undertook the research because she felt there were a number of gaps in Hannah's memoir that ought to be filled. Who was Sheldon Jackson, her superior, and what was he like? Why did she make a thousand-mile trip to testify in court? In her commentary, we learn the answers, and get a fuller picture of Alaska at the turn of the century. There are stories of bizarre schemes to import reindeer from Siberia, complete with Samoyed herders, in order to create a reindeer express. Evidence is uncovered that Hannah felt her life to be in danger due to conflicts with certain white authorities. But the commentary is at its most interesting when Jacobs expresses her own opinion of the characters she researched:

"Jackson was a common type; the know-it-all who wades into a piece of the world and its population with visions of how to transform the whole shebang. The people who founded and shaped the Soviet Union were such types. So were many imperialists who lorded it over colonies in Africa and Asia. So were American slum-clearers, public-housers, and city planners. The World Bank today is full of such types. The visions differ; the hubris and impulse do not."

Jacobs expresses the indignation that Hannah would not articulate in her manuscript, and there is a sense, after learning about Hannah's struggles, that she is finally receiving her due.

It is very tempting to see Jacobs as a latterday Hannah Breece, or conversely, to see Hannah Breece as a proto-Jacobean. Both of these women insist on looking at the world with their own two eyes, rather than through the lens of ideology. They both want to know how cultures work, and what drives society. Both have written books rich in character, ringing with a distinctive voice. Both ventured into new territory by themselves, each in her own way. But Jacobs has been careful to keep a rather low profile between the covers of A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska. In an odd inversion, she is like a proud parent letting another generation shine. Her tact vis--vis her aunt is as sensitive as Hannah's tact regarding the native community. She is also exemplifying another old-fashioned virtue: respect for her elders.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us