Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay
Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay was released late this spring. Elizabeth Hay is a seasoned novelist with a Giller Prize for her previous novel Late Nights on Air – so why is Alone in the Classroom not flying off the shelves? – and shame on me why didn’t I grab it to read as soon as it came into the store! It was not until after a cottage guest said she was enjoying it that I decided it was the next book I would read. And – it is wonderful – one of the best I’ve read. So, is it the title – a bit ominous – Alone in the Classroom – what happens when someone is Alone in the Classroom – our imaginations run wild – abuse of a student? A confrontation between a teacher and a principal, a stepping across the acceptable boundaries between a teacher and a favourite student, a teacher, truly alone, wondering about the future of her teaching career? Could be any or all of these.
The novel begins in the Ottawa Valley with the murder of 13 year old Ethel Weir in August 1937, “her battered head in a pool of blood”. Ethel had been picking chokecherries. I’m already, by page 4, loving this novel. Elizabeth Hay is a year older than I am – we know the same landscape of time and place – and I was immediately at home, and immersed in the hot days of late summer – long, long days of berry picking – with just a glimpse of summer ending and the school year beginning.
Then we meet Connie Flood, a newspaper reporter who has come to write a story about this murder - and Mr. Burns, principal of the local high school.
We are introduced to Hannah Soper, 17 years old and listening to a conversation between Connie and Mrs. Burns.
Then it is 1929, in Jewel, Saskatchewan. Ian “Parley” Burns is 35 years old, the school principal. The students stand up when he enters the room. Connie Flood is 19 years old, a young teacher. Susan Graves is 13 years old. Syd Goodwin, once Connie’s teacher, now a superintendent, comes for an inspection and talks to the students about books, the man a true teacher, seeing this in Connie as well. “A child lies like a grey pebble on the shore until a certain teacher picks him up and dips him in water, and suddenly you see all the colours and patterns in the dull stone, and it’s marvelous for the stone and marvelous for the teacher.”
A tragedy occurs – blame is cast – the characters scatter to other parts of the country. Connie leaves teaching and becomes a journalist – landing in Ottawa, where she finds herself assigned to the story of the death of Ethel Weir – bringing her back into contact with Parley Burns. She also meets again that favourite student from her time teaching on the Prairies – their ages and positions now less of a deterrent to a relationship than would not have been allowed 7 years earlier. And another story begins.
I always struggle with writing a review about a book I want to recommend to readers – I don’t want to tell you so much of the story that it is not a discovery for you as you read. To me that is the wonder of a novel – the opening up of the covers and finding myself lost in the novel – the creation of a writer’s memory and imagination. I know just enough about Elizabeth Hay to know that some of this story is somewhat autobiographical – but this storyteller takes those kernels of truth and experience and weaves them as jewels into a tapestry of fiction. This one just shines.