Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay


In a small prairie school in 1929, Connie Flood helps a backward student, Michael Graves, learn how to read. Observing them and darkening their lives is the principal, Parley Burns, whose strange behaviour culminates in an attack so disturbing its repercussions continue to the present day.

Connie’s niece, Anne, tells the story. Impelled by curiosity about her dynamic, adventurous aunt and her more conventional mother, she revisits Connie’s past and her mother’s broken childhood. In the process, she unravels the enigma of Parley Burns and the mysterious (and unrelated) deaths of two young girls. As the novel moves deeper into their lives, the triangle of principal, teacher, student opens out into other emotional triangles – aunt, niece, lover; mother, daughter, granddaughter – until a sudden, capsizing love thrusts Anne herself into a newly independent life.

This spellbinding tale – set in Saskatchewan and the Ottawa Valley  crosses generations and cuts to the bone. It probes the roots of obsessive love and hate, how the hurts and desires of childhood persist and are passed on as if in the blood. It lays bare the urgency of discovering what we were never told about the past. And it celebrates the process of becoming who we are in a world full of startling connections that lie just out of sight.


Alone in the Classroom is a character driven, literary novel. The story opens in Ontario in 1937. A young girl is picking berries on a hillside and is found dead, similar to another death ten years earlier in the province of Saskatchewan. The tale unravels through the point of view of the niece of Connie Flood, a young reporter, turned teacher in a small school. Her greatest challenge is teaching a young boy with a learning disability to read. The principal, Parley Burns, is a difficult man who takes a keen interest in Connie as well as other young women. The mystery of the two murders are separate and distinct, and eventually they become connected as the story unfolds.

The plot of this novel has many layers and tends to meander a bit, jumping back and forth in time and between characters. I found the switching between points of view and time periods challenging, and sometimes a bit confusing, partly because the characters weren’t always readily introduced at the start of a scene. Despite all this, the story is gripping, the prose superb, the plot luscious, and the characters beautifully rendered. To fully appreciate this book, however, approach it will care. You must read it carefully and at a slower pace and with a greater degree of concentration. 

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