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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

February 25, 1996|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

A SCHOOLTEACHER IN OLD ALASKA edited by Jane Jacobs. (Random House: $19.95; 302 pp.) This is the kind of book you stay awake worrying won't get published anymore. (Just a night thought.) "To be openly proper and conventional yet also openly daring is a way of being that was seldom available to women in the past. 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. . . . She camped out with Indians! She held a hundred wild dogs at bay. . . . She traveled in a kayak wearing bear intestines!" So begins Jacobs, lovingly telling the story, based on Breece's journals and letters, of her great-aunt's experience teaching Aleuts, Kenais, Athabaskans, Eskimos and Europeans in Alaska from 1904 to 1918. Breece insisted only on going where she was most needed, usually to tiny villages in the far outback. Once she had blown into town, she would organize a schoolhouse; mend racial, ethnic and class divisions; solve nutritional problems (in one case by having the children plant gardens so that they would have vegetables in their diets); shelter children from difficult homes; and bring the community together around their children. Then she would move on to the next place. She was able to manipulate bureaucracies a million miles away; mobilize concerned citizens back in Seattle to send blankets, clothes and church organs; and when none of that worked, she did it all herself. I am quite sure that she left a piece of her remarkable resolve and dignity in every home whose child she cared for. She was all thousand points of light in one body.

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