TOPPING OUT by Katherine Wonn Harris


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A memoir of a teacher in Idaho’s Hells Canyon area in the early 20th century.

Harris, who died in 1979, was an educator-turned-journalist who first published this recollection in 1971. This second edition, edited and republished by Marilyn Allen, the author’s niece, is a welcome reprise. It investigates Harris’ long-standing attachment to a place that offered, in her words, “a rough life with no refinements.” She first arrived in Buck Creek, Idaho, in 1916 for an eight-month stint teaching children. Things were tense from the start, as the 16-year-old author had lied about her age to get a job in the rough-and-tumble frontier. She diligently documents her time at her first outpost, describing a hot-and-cold affair with a local boy with the same wit that she uses to recount her riding a seemingly sick mule into a nearby town. Things became less quaint, however, when she accepted a four-month post teaching at a camp on forest-reserve land. Her new position required her to care for seven kids from Monday to Friday, because the terrain was too harsh for them to regularly travel to and from the school building. She and the children camped out in tents, and their neighbor was a strange, cranky old man with no apparent affection for anything but sugar. In this section, the memoir provides eye-opening insights into the American education system before World War I; the schoolchildren, who belonged to nomadic ranching families, only had four months per year for schooling and hadn’t yet learned to read. Harris, ever the teacher, is always ready to provide readers with historic, economic, and geographic context for the events that she recalls, and these explanations can, at times, be somewhat dry. The dire conditions, however, are the perfect host for Harris’ frank humor, most notably in her account of the final weeks of school, when multiple difficulties befell the young schoolmarm. Joseph’s illustrations of a young Harris frolicking in nature and caring for children only strengthen its charms.

A brief, often delightful remembrance that blooms into a warm tale of frontier life.

Pub Date: April 13th, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-5043-9565-6
Page count: 264pp
Publisher: BalboaPress
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2018


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