Between Breaths: A Teacher in the Alaskan Bush
By Sandra K. Mathews
University of New Mexico Press 2006
Alaska has always been synonymous with adventure – wide open spaces, new experiences and romance.
Donna McGladrey left her middle class home in Chicago for the Bush town of Dillingham in 1958, before statehood, to experience the adventure offered by a new frontier, one that “challenged her perception of herself, Alaska Natives, and other pioneers.”
The story of Donna’s adventure, which lasted from September 1958 until her untimely death in December 1959, is recounted in “Between Breaths: A Teacher in the Alaskan Bush.” What makes this story different from all the other books recounting the stories of various young women who came to The Last Frontier from middle class, affluent or poor backgrounds in the Lower 48 to teach “primitive” Natives, is the author of this particular book.
Sandra Mathews is Donna’s niece, not yet born when Donna flew into the wilderness of Alaska in 1959 with her boyfriend Richard Newton and never returned. Mathews has gathered correspondence written by Donna throughout her days in Dillingham, letters sent to Donna by her family, as well as interviews with people who knew Donna – old school chums, former students, and friends and family.
A labour of love, this particular book. And yet, as cloying as that may sound, it is a clear, honest picture of a young woman thrown into an element so unfamiliar and different every day was a struggle and homesickness a constant companion.
Mathews’ Donna is not a shallow, vapid young woman flitting through life “improving” the lot of the Natives. Her letters, her friends, and her biographer acknowledge her frailties, her fears, and her struggles.
The daughter of Methodist minister Leslie McGladrey and his wife Verna, twin sister to Dorothy, Donna was born in 1935 in Mora, Minn. Older sister Joan, 3 years old when the twins arrived, remembers coming home from playing to find two new sisters.
Donna’s childhood was idyllic, even though Methodist ministers – especially during the Depression – weren’t flush with cash or other assets. Verna had to pinch every penny, and the family learned to make do with very little. Additionally, “pastor’s kids” had an entire community watching their every move, so mischief and other kid stuff was out of the question.
But Donna’s sisters, Joan and Dorothy, remember lots of laughter and especially, lots of music. Verna, who played the church organ, and Leslie, an “amazing” singer, saw to it that music lessons for all three girls was a priority.
“Music lessons provided an important diversion, but also formed the basis for Donna’s future education and employment,” Mathews writes.
Donna’s education ranged from a private “whiz kids” school to public high school to MacMurray College, an all-women’s school in Jacksonville, Ill. She majored in music, aspiring to teach music to children.
Donna’s decision to move to Alaska, to teach music at the Dillingham school, was quick and surprising, to Donna as much as anyone. The telegram offering her the position arrived on Sept. 4, 1958; on Sept. 12, Donna left Chicago to begin a new phase of her life, to “move far away to reinvent herself, prove her worth to herself and others, and become independent,” Mathews recounts.
At the time, Dillingham, though a far cry from the very primitive little town of Snag Point it used to be, was still very different from Chicago. No electricity, little in the way of business or industry, and sanitation and water systems that were “subject to contamination,” according to a report filed by Muriel Speers for the “Post War Planning Survey commissioned by the Alaska Indian Service after World War II.
But despite Dillingham’s primitive nature, the fact that the music teacher was expected to teach music with no instruments or sheet music (and no money for either unless she found it herself), swarms of insects, lots of rain, no apartments or houses, and a very poor first impression (“This town is a typical Eskimo fishing village. It is by far the largest fishing village in this area but as barbarian, primitive, uncultured, remote, dirty, shacky, miserable, etc., as anything anywhere,” she wrote in her first letter home), she soon fell under the spell of Alaska.
She grew to love her students, found ways to bring music to them, and met Richard Newton, an on-again, off-again boyfriend who eventually shared her tragic fate.
Mathews has done an impressive job of researching not just her aunt’s life and times, but the Territory of Alaska, its history, culture and beginnings. She explores the nature of the frontier, the way statehood changed the landscape and the people, and she describes in detail the journey she took to discover her aunt and tell her story.
The title is a mystery until the very end of the story, when Mathews discusses Donna and Richard’s last flight. Donna had moved from Dillingham to Chugiak, and as the Christmas holidays approached, she began to feel very lonely and homesick. Richard, who with his brother owned a construction company which was contracted to do some work in Dillingham, planned to fly to Dillingham for a few days, and Donna decided to accompany him, hoping to spend a few days with some old friends.
It was a dangerous flight over miles of uninhabited and almost impassable terrain, and Richard was only a student pilot. But despite her nervousness and innumerable delays due to weather, Donna climbed aboard the Cessna 175 and off they flew.
Contact was made with Richard at about 4:50 p.m. on December 30, 1959, and then … nothing.
Despite Leslie McGladrey and Charles Newton’s efforts and numerous and extensive searches, the plane would not be seen again until June 1960. Richard’s brother Charles had the sad duty of telling Leslie and Verna McGladrey their daughter had been found:
Charles searched the wreck in vain for traces of his beloved brother and his beautiful fiancé, but all he could find of their parkas, sweaters, and three sleeping bags was a small polka dot piece of blouse and a very small piece of green shadow plaid wool shirt. Charles wrote that, ‘The heat was so intense that two steel wrenches were fused together … death was between two breaths, instantaneous and merciful. They suffered from the fire not at all.’
In the end, Donna McGladrey’s Alaskan adventure was short and tragic, but her love for this land was boundless and unshakeable. She lived her life “between breaths,” always awed by the beauty and majesty around her, despite the suffering, pain and unhappiness she experienced.
Mathews has penned an excellent tribute to her aunt, celebrating her spirit and sense of adventure, her willingness to endure hardships, her unbounded love for a wild frontier. It reminds us why we live here, when there are other places much easier and less harsh, that would welcome us.