Tag Archives: Alaska

“A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska – The Story of Hannah Breece” edited by Jane Jacobs

I was on vacation (in Alaska) and had promised myself I wouldn’t buy gifts for family and friends – I was trying to travel light. But when I saw this book, I had to have it! Memoirs about Alaska’s early days are numerous, but this one stood out because of the identity of the editor. Jane Jacobs is identified on the book cover as author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Yes, that Jane Jacobs! A Google search of her name yields 22 million hits! Okay, it’s a pretty common name, but I’ll bet the majority refer to the “American-Canadian journalist, author and activist” smiling out at me from Wikipedia (but modestly absent from the book). Hannah Breece, sadly, is not listed in Wikipedia. I hope this is remedied soon.

How did Jacobs-the-activist end up editing this 193-page memoir? In a sense, she inherited the job. Hannah Breece was Jane Jacobs’ aunt. Late in Ms. Breece’s life, when she had retired to Oregon, acquaintances urged her to write about her experiences teaching in Alaska from 1904 to 1918. She asked friends and relatives to return her letters, and used them to assemble a memoir. It was not published. Jane Jacobs admits she was put off by the racism, sexism and colonialism detectable in her Aunt’s writing, though they were merely a reflection of the times.

Hannah Breece died in 1940, and Jane Jacobs published the memoir in 1995! She added detailed commentary that tremendously enhances the value of Ms. Breece’s record. Under the heading of “Puzzles, Tangles, Clarifications”, she addresses the social and political climate of Alaska, its relation to the rest of the US and numerous omissions in the memoir. (In fact, Ms. Breece had left out a great deal.) Jacobs offers seven brief essays clarifying various points. My favorite was #6, entitled “Miraculous Rescues”.

Make no mistake, Hannah Breece was very fortunate to have survived her time in the wilderness. Any newcomer to Alaska had to be smart, strong and LUCKY to deal with the hazards of climate, wildlife, topography and lack of government. Ms. Breece recounts two experiences that “should” have killed her, for which no “rational” explanation of her survival can be offered. Jacobs doesn’t back off from this complex territory. She assigns one experience (a near drowning) to the category of “intuition”. Before crossing a frozen bay, Ms. Breece felt “irrational” fear that was readily explainable after the fact. The second experience was more complex. Perhaps, suffering from hypothermia, Ms. Breece hallucinated. She was helped by a person who wasn’t there. In her dire need, did she remember someone strong and competent from her childhood?

Now that I’ve read it, I’ll pass this book along to the intended recipient. It’s a good thing he likes used books!

“The Voyage of the Narwhal – A Novel” by Andrea Barrett

Published in 1998, 394 pages, Norton paperback edition.

I can’t believe how much I liked this book! It’s one of the best novels I read since Cold Mountain.

(Digression… Why was I predisposed to read this book? My Father’s World War II military service included spending two winters in Point Barrow. Alaska, prospecting for north slope oil. Barrow was a tiny, isolated community and the Navy (Construction Battalion) unit was left more or less on its own for the cold, dark months. Dad came home with an interest in the arctic exploration, and read everything our public library provided about the polar explorers and their journeys. If Dad was alive, I would send him a copy of this wonderful story!

The other thing that hooked me was theword  “narwhal” in the title. The narwahl is a beautiful creature, much less studied than the whale or dolphin. It’s single tusk may be the source of the unicorn legends…)

The plot exceeded my expectations, which were of a standard adventure/survival tale. The 1850s was a period of exploration and public excitement about distant places. An expedition leaves from Philadelphia, hoping to find a missing explorer and fill in some blank places on the emerging map of the far North.

What makes this book work so well? The characters are well conceived and idiosyncratic. The author does not give too much away. I suppose I knew there had to be a “bad guy”, but who it was and what acts he would commit were not signaled in advance. The plot surprised me (more than once), and there was a subtle arc of retribution that I barely caught on my first reading.

Yesterday I glanced at the New York Times (April 1, 2016) and found a review of another novel about the far North, with emphasis on whaling rather than exploration. The North Water by Ian McGuire sounds too gory for me, and possibly too laden with literary references. But I realize this is only one reviewer’s opinion, so I may grab this if I find it on the “new arrivals” shelf at the library.

Meanwhile, I plan to read more by Andrea Barrett.

“Good Morning, Beautiful Business” by Judy Wicks

Good Morning, Beautiful Business by Judy Wicks. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013, 274 pages. Subtitle The unexpected journey of an activist entrepreneur and local economy pioneer.

Another long-ish pause in my blogging, as I read another long and thoughtful book…

This blog post counts as two items – a report on a lecture and also a book review! I bought the book when Judy Wicks spoke at my workplace on March 19, 2015. (It didn’t really take me three weeks to read her book. I had others in progress.)

Judy Wicks was brought to campus by the School of Business, with enthusiastic faculty support. Apparently three or four classes were required to attend, so the room was jammed with students signing in and extra chairs had to be set up.

Good Morning, Beautiful Business is a memoir. Wicks is just two years older than me, so we experienced many of the same events but followed very different pathways through life.

Odd features of this book:

  • Judy Wicks is not to be found in Wikipedia, except as the first wife of Richard Hayne, one of the founders of the extremely successful Urban Outfitters, a business than has generated a fortune. I thought everyone who EVER wrote a book would show up in Wikipedia. (Wicks is easily found on Amazon.com. If she wasn’t, that would be spooky.) I thought the White Dog Café might show up in Wikipedia, but it is also missing. It shows up on at least a dozen “restaurant finder” web sites.
  • This memoir contains NO information about Judy Wicks’ college experience, not even the name of the school she attended. Why?! Was she disowned? Most colleges love to claim their famous alumnae. Her website says only that she earned a BA in English. Wicks’ descriptions of childhood and high school are vivid, as is her chapter on her post college experience with Americorps, which sent her to a very remote village in Alaska. A friend of mine collects written accounts of college experiences. I thought surely there would be something in this book for him!

Judy Wicks was a child in the 1950s, college student and young adult in the 1960s. One of “us”, a baby boomer. The 50s were distinguished by sexism and conformity, the 60s by the Vietnam War and its associated backlash. Wicks came out of these trials a feminist and a skeptic, but still an idealist. She stumbled into the restaurant business (starting out as a waitress) and later founded the highly successful White Dog Café, known nationally and even internationally for its commitment to using food that is

  • organic
  • local and
  • humanely produced.

It is also a hub for progressive social action and community building. Much of what she does and cares about can be subsumed in the category of “sustainability”, a term that has been so used, abused and co-opted as to be almost useless without detailed qualification.

Judy Wicks has enough energy for four or five average people! The account of her activities left me breathless.

So all of this was going on while I lived 60 miles down the road, in Southern New Jersey. How did I miss it? I don’t know. My only time of residence in Philadelphia was a three month sojourn in the Ronald MacDonald House, when my son had a serious medical crisis. I did, in fact, dine at the White Dog once or twice during that time, but I wasn’t processing much detail.

Of the three commitments listed above, the one that speaks to me most strongly is “local”. Wicks has the courage to envision an economy radically different from that in which we now live. She highlights ideas like self-reliance and cooperation that have been greatly diminished in our current competitive and globalized world order. (She scarcely needs to mention that it has brought us into terrible risk.)

Just today, I drove around looking for local eggs. I can, if I make the effort, buy eggs directly from farmers. The farm market “scene” around here fills my summers with delight.

I have almost no experience with the entrepreneurial spirit Wicks so embodies and values, and I can’t imagine owning a business. Maybe at some point I will invest in a local business! I like that idea.

As I read the last few chapters of Wicks book, I wondered how she maintains her optimism. I found the following formulation – Wicks believe that social action requires two generations. Efforts of the baby boom generation to resolve the ills that led to the Vietnam War failed because the “generation gap” between the WWII generation and the subsequent anti-war baby boomers was so traumatically, excruciatingly wide. She thinks that our generation and our children (down to the millenials) are working together much more constructively. Well, it’s a theory. I hope Wicks is right!

ALL business students should read Good Morning, Beautiful Business. So should most of the rest of us, since consumers determine which businesses flourish.