Tag Archives: first person writing

“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!

“Blue-Collar Journal: A College President’s Sabbatical” by John Royston Coleman

I haven’t read this book, but I know its good. How? I heard the author speak, shortly after the book was published in 1974. And the gist of his story stayed with me so clearly that I spotted his obituary in the New York Times last week (September 9, 2016)! John Coleman died at age 95, after a life of intellectual adventure and social activism.

Coleman was the first non-Quaker president of Haverford College, serving from 1967 to 1977. In the middle of that period, he took a sabbatical and worked as a garbage collector, ditch digger and salad chef. As President of Haverford, he abolished football (I heartily approve), encouraged antiwar protests and campaigned for coeducation, eventually resigning when the College’s Trustees wouldn’t open the doors to women. (They did so shortly thereafter.)

If you want to read Blue-Collar Journal, good luck. My local libraries don’t have it. I’m sure Interlibrary Loan would come through. Amazon has a few copies, but at $156.87 I won’t buy it. I hope a Kindle version will be offered soon.

Interestingly, I found another book entitled Blue Collar Journal available on Amazon. It’s by one Richard Cronborg, a retired heavy equipment operator who seems to have jumped, upon retirement, into blogging, Facebook, poetry and self-publishing. I doubt the two authors ever met. But what wonderful gifts their writings are!

“The Color of Water” and “Kill ‘Em and Leave” by James McBride

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother was published in 1996. (I don’t remember when I first read it.) As the struggle for racial justice continues, this book deserves to make a comeback. If you missed it, read it now! First person writing at its best.

I just came face to face with Mr. McBride in the pages of the New York Times. His picture is self effacing, and I nearly missed him. The occasion of his appearance in the Times is publication (April 5!) of his latest book, Kill ‘Em and Leave, subtitled Searching for James Brown and the American Soul.

According to NYT reviewer John Williams, McBride found writing about musician James Brown, aka the “Godfather of Soul”, excruciatingly difficult. Not only was his life riddled with mysteries and contradiction, but after his death, his heirs clashed over distribution of his estate in a grim and wasteful debacle.

Between these two books, McBride wrote three books that sound like fictionalized history (not to be confused with historical fiction), drawing his inspiration from figures like Harriet Tubman and John Brown. His journalism careers includes writing for major newspapers (like The Boston Globe) and magazines including Rolling Stone. Also a musician, he plays tenor saxophone and works as a composer.

I hope McBride keeps working in all these media. He has a powerful voice and deserves to be heard.

“Son of the Rough South – an Uncivil Memoir” by Karl Fleming

This book was a Christmas gift from my son, who knows what I like. He knows about my desire to understand the history I have lived through, especially the Sixties and the Civil Rights movement, and he knows I like biography and autobiography. He found this paperback in a used bookstore. (Publication date 2005, 418 pages + index, published by Perseus Books Group.)

That said… I had some trouble getting myself to READ this book. I was under the weather after Christmas (the classic Christmas cold) and didn’t feel strong enough to confront in detail the ugly truth about the American battle for desegregation. So I read slowly, taking chapters out of order.

I’m PROFOUNDLY glad I persisted! Son of the Rough South is an amazing piece of first person writing. Karl Fleming worked for Newsweek magazine, hired by their Atlanta bureau in 1961. He was a aggressive reporter, a skilled interviewer and an expert at “setting the scene” in order to catch the reader’s interest.

I’ve long recognized that people like me should be grateful for the adrenaline freaks among us. Who else is going to drive ambulances and work in the ER? I didn’t realize that a journalist may be part of the adrenaline crowd. Fleming covered some of the most appallingly dangerous, violent events of the southern Civil Rights struggle. His sympathies were entirely with the Black communities, but he reported as evenhandedly as he knew how. (Most) southern white police officers and political leaders hated his guts.

When Fleming moved to Los Angeles in 1966, he thought he was leaving the civil rights battle behind. But he wandered into Watts, the Black section of the city that exploded in May of that year, encountered a hostile crowd and was beaten almost to death. His skull was fractured, brain injured, jaws broken, life altered.

In the aftermath, Fleming was surprised to realize he did not feel anger towards the young Black men who assaulted him. To Fleming, IT WAS NOT ABOUT RACE. It was about power. He was always going to side with the underdog.

The account of Fleming’s adventures in the desegregating South would be enough to make this a good book, but he framed it with accounts of his childhood and later adulthood.

Fleming’s childhood was shaped by the awful poverty of the Great Depression. His widowed, ailing mother placed him and his half-sister in the Methodist Orphanage at Raleigh, North Carolina when Fleming was eight. Fleming’s account dissects his experience there, both negative and positive. In some ways, it was a model institution, in other ways a traumatic Dickensian nightmare. Anyone interested in the evolution child welfare policies should read this.

Many public figures of the Civil Rights movement show up in this book. Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael were of particular interest to me, and I was pleased that Fleming mentioned Fannie Lou Hamer and the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, NJ.

All of this leaves me with the question, how did we end up where we are NOW, in 2016? What’s better, what’s worse, and what has been totally unexpected?

One thing that has changed is language. I’ve followed Fleming in using the term “Black”. Perhaps I should have used African American. Fleming quotes his sources saying everything from “colored” and “Negro” to “coon” and worse.

Son of the Rough South is well written, fast paced and highly informative. I recommend it unreservedly.

“A Sea Story: The Untold Story of the US Navy Response to 9/11” by Joseph Pignataro and Barry AA Dillinger

The author is the protagonist in this recounting of what happened on a Navy ship in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Pignataro changed all names except his own, which makes me wonder about the captain and other senior officers, whose names must be a matter of public record, ditto the name of the ship, USS Leyte Gulf (a Ticonderoga class cruiser, not a destroyer). The ship is described as a “bodyguard” for a battle group and normally carries about 350 people.

I have no memory of the event at the climax of this book, the ill fated boarding of an Iraqi tanker suspected of carrying embargoed goods and weapons. Several sailors died. This was probably not reported publicly at the time.

I suppose the Navy has “boarding” all figured out, but to me it seems strange to send so few people into such uncertainty with so little planning for their extrication.

I think writing this book was “therapeutic” for the author. I put the term “therapeutic” into quotes because it  is entirely possible J Pignataro didn’t ever feel he needed “therapy”. But as a witness to shocking violence and sudden death, he was certainly a candidate for PTSD, and as I read his description of the events on the boarded ship, I had the sense that he was trying, as he described his team’s movements and the responses they faced, to make sense of something incredibly complex and troubling. 

I have read that “narrative is the beginning of recovery”. Before a person can recover from trauma, it is necessary to tell the story. I hope that his experiences left no permanent scars on Pignataro.

Reviews on Amazon cast doubt on some details in this book, but I would rather read this kind of energetic first person account than some polished and 100% fact checked memorandum. My thanks to the author for giving me a glimpse of his world!