By Elizabeth Wroten
Chapter Book Review: The Year of Miss Agnes
On 28, Dec 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Ten-year-old Frederika (Fred for short) doesn’t have much faith that the new teacher in town will last very long. After all, they never do. Most teachers who come to their one-room schoolhouse in remote, Alaska leave at the first smell of fish, claiming that life there is just too hard.
But Miss Agnes is different — she doesn’t get frustrated with her students, and she throws away old textbooks and reads Robin Hood instead! For the first time, Fred and her classmates begin to enjoy their lessons and learn to read and write — but will Miss Agnes be like all the rest and leave as quickly as she came?
So my first read of this book was that it was a beautiful story about the transformative power of a good teacher, a teacher who respects her students and cares. And it certainly is a story about that, but there are also some really problematic elements.
To begin with the story very much follows the white savior storyline. The kind white teacher arrives and helps all the poor native kids (and some adults) assimilate more fully into Western culture by teaching them to read and do math and love music. I will say Miss Agnes does have an appreciation for the children’s culture and she never belittles it or forces them to give it up, but she is teaching them foreign ways.
There is also the underlying issue of the Indian boarding schools that is not addressed here, but looms over the story if you know about them (which most non-native school children don’t). I’m not sure this was the story to bring them up in, but this story stands in contrast to them, but still doesn’t completely get away from the ideas that they were founded on, namely to Westernize native children.
My suggestion: read it in class and pair it with Fatty Legs. There would be a great opportunity to discuss the differences in theses experiences and talk about how things could still have been better in Miss Agnes’ class. Certainly the kids needed to learn to read and write to survive a changing world, a world that was knocking on their door and encroaching further every year, but they also needed their culture respected further.
I also took issue with Frederika’s voice. There were times it felt purposely stilted and silly to drive home the point that she was native.
Is this an essential book for a library collection, no not by any means, but I think there is a lot of good here and a great conversation starter for non-native kids about the horrors of education of native populations. I do also firmly believe that many kids will connect with the theme of finding a transformative adult or teacher.