I read this little story in an effort to broaden Lulu’s reading horizons, all the while making sure that my sensitive reader didn’t inadvertently read anything that might upset her too much. A couple of weeks ago she read an American Girl story in which one of the friends of Rebecca or Samantha or Molly (I think it was Rebecca, but I can’t keep up with Lulu’s reading) dies, and we had quite a bit of angst over untimely deaths to deal with. However, Lulu is reading books at the rate of at least one a day, and it has been hard for me to come up with challenging-enough stories for a precocious-but-sensitive seven-year-old reader. I thought the cover of The Year of Miss Agnes looked innocent enough, but one never knows in which stories some tragedy might lurk.
Well, this book is just delightful and heart-touching, with no angst involved. Told through the eyes of a little girl named Fred (short for Frederika), this is the story of a one-room school in a 1940s Alaskan fishing camp that has a very hard time keeping a teacher. Oh, the kids are just kids–Athabascans who smell of fish most of the year and have some gaps in their learning, but who have lots to offer. The kids are loving and genuine, but the culture and environment are not for the faint-of-heart.
Enter Miss Agnes Sutterfield, the teacher who detours to our one-room schoolhouse on her way back to her home in England after teaching in another remote Alaskan village for many, many years. Miss Agnes is different–she wears pants and drinks tea. She also puts aside all the old, dry textbooks they were accustomed to using and thus ignites a real passion for learning among her pupils. Miss Agnes’ philosophy of education is best summed up in some astute observations from ten year old Fred:
Miss Agnes didn’t think school was just for kids.
“You have to keep learning all your life,” she said.
That was a good thing to think about, always learning something new. It wasn’t like you had to hurry up and learn everything right away before the learning time was over, it was like you could kind of relax and take your time and enjoy it. (64)
With Miss Agnes the world got bigger and then it got smaller. We used to think we were something, but then she told us all the things that were bigger than us, the universe and all that, and then all the things that were smaller. Too small to even see. So people were sort of in between, not big or small, just in between. That was a really interesting thing to think about. (75)
Miss Agnes is just the type of teacher we love and that I presume we all aspire to be: tough but inspiring, fair-minded, and willing to see her pupils both as they are and as they can be. I find her personally inspiring because the very best of what Fred describes her school as is exactly what I try to do in our homeschool here. They do lots of hands-on learning, discussion, reading of classic literature, and narration, just like we do. The author note at the back of the book says that Kirkpatrick Hillhas actually spent most of her thirty-plus year career as a teacher in one-room schoolhouses in the Alaskan “bush,” so I assume that much of what she writes is from experience. The Year of Miss Agnes paints a very vivid picture of what life in a remote Alaskan fishing village in the 1940s was like, so not only is this an engrossing story about an inspiring and beloved teacher, it’s also a little history/geography/sociology lesson, too!
Reading The Year of Miss Agnes got me thinking about other inspiring teachers from literature. I was particularly reminded of Catherine Marshall’s Christy, of course, due to a similar if less-complicated theme of someone “civilized” moving to the back country and finding a calling and a passion. (Christy isn’t really a kid’s book, more YA or adult reading, but it’s one of my favorites!) And then there’s Miss Stacy of Anne of Green Gables fame, a teacher who shares some of the same methods as Miss Agnes (and Charlotte Mason!) Of course, I can’t forget Anne Shirley herself! I’m sure there are others. Who’s your favorite teacher in literature?
I’ll gladly hand this delightful and touching story over to my seven year old. I know there’s no way that I’ll ever be able to keep up with her reading appetite, but if you have any suggestions for a voracious-but-sensitive reader with eclectic taste in books, please share them! (To give you an idea of how eclectic, just this week she has read D’Aualaire’s Book of Greek Myths twice and followed the second reading up with a little historical fiction novel by Gloria Whelan. Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books are also pulled off the shelf frequently.)