The Year of Miss Agnes
by Kirkpatrick Hill
Aladdin Paperbacks, 2002
It’s a common scenario in juvenile literature: misunderstood, marginalized kid meets sympathetic, unconventional adult, and epiphanies/personal growth/life changes ensue.
In The Year of Miss Agnes, the kid is 10-year-old Fred(erika), an Athabascan Indian living in a 1940s Alaskan bush village. The adult and title character is Agnes Sutterfield, a progressive Englishwoman who comes to teach at the village’s one-room school.
Miss Agnes is the latest in a string of teachers who have held the post. None of the previous occupants has stayed more than a year, and now the government is threatening to close the school.
No one, it seems, thinks it worthwhile to educate Fred and her peers. No one, that is, except Miss Agnes.
Under her guidance, Fred and the other village children finally learn to read, write, and do math with some proficiency. They learn about their own history and geography and that of the wider world.
And, of course, they learn about their own potential, something no other teacher has cared to recognize, let alone develop. As Fred says, “Before Miss Agnes came, we didn’t know people like us could learn that much . . . It was in my head then, that I could do something really big.”
But, while this kind of trajectory is a familiar one, The Year of Miss Agnes stands out from its peers on several counts.
First, there are few juvenile novels about modern American Indian life, let alone the pre-statehood Alaskan bush. Hill, a native Alaskan and longtime bush teacher, obviously draws on firsthand experience as she incorporates Athabaskan and bush customs, life rhythms, and social structures into the very fabric of the novel.
Then there is the authenticity of Fred’s voice, her clipped tone and lilting colloquialisms. And there is the depth of the characters–everyone has a backstory at least one, sometimes two or three, generations deep. For a book of barely more than 100 pages, the sense of layering is impressive.
My favorite part of the book, though, is the way it points girls not only to what they might become in adulthood but also to what they can be right now.
“Miss Agnes was different in some way,” says Fred, and, in the context of the book, that’s obviously a good thing. She flouts conventions of femininity, education, and cultural hierarchy. Yet she’s creative, influential, well-liked, strong.
Obviously, any young girl can benefit from encountering a woman–even if she’s just a character on a page–whose differences are the very qualities that enable her to choose and live out a life’s mission.
Even better, however, is when a young girl encounters a peer who realizes that her differences are something to celebrate. A peer who is already rising above obstacles that observers would call insurmountable.
When The Year of Miss Agnes begins, Fred is poor, barely literate, tremendously insecure, and almost completely ignorant of anything beyond her tiny village.
When the book ends, she’s still poor, still struggling academically–but she feels good about who she is and what she’s accomplished and, most importantly, feels that she has a future. That “something really big” is in her head as almost a fait accompli.
I don’t know about you, but that inspires me.
Is there a Miss Agnes in your history? How do you make sure there are Miss Agneses in the lives of the girls you parent/teach/care for?