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Book review: "Alone in the Classroom"

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Ottawa writer, Elizabeth Hay, set the action of her fourth novel in Saskatchewan and the Ottawa Valley.

Elizabeth Hay begins her book with a bucolic description of early August in the Ottawa Valley in 1937, when the green world was full of barefoot children picking berries. Hay writes, "The whole landscape was a painting come to life, and not a Canadian painting (no figures allowed) but a European painting, peopled and unpeopled, storied, brazen."

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Betsy Kepes
Book Reviewer

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Hay doesn’t allow her readers much time in this peaceful summer place. By page four one of the teenaged berry pickers is found murdered, her kettle of chokecherries spilled beside her battered body.

I read on, expecting Alone in the Classroom to be a Canadian whodunit, but the dead girl gets very little time on the page. This is a novel that spans seventy-five years, three generations and half of the North American continent but it is not a mystery. Hay is more interested in her living characters—how they survive heartbreak and hardship and move on to create the rest of their lives.

The central character of the book, Connie Flood, works in a four-room school in Saskatchewan in 1929. She struggles to teach French, a language she does not know, and Michael, an “unteachable” student who intrigues her. Hay writes: [Michael was]…A boy who read and wrote laboriously, grindingly, though memory work was no problem. Poems and songs he recited without effort and numbers in his head were a snap. But they all did a strange soft-shoe when he wrote them down.” It’s a fascinating backward glance at how devastating an undiagnosed learning disorder might have been at that time.

The eighteen-year-old new teacher, Connie, is both attracted and repelled by the fastidious head teacher, Mr. Parley Burns. Hay writes:  “He liked to enter her classroom without warning. A curt nod in her direction, and her hand went to her throat and the students rose in a single swoosh, a covey of grouse flushed by a gunshot, but no escape, no sky…”

After a horrendous student death in the little prairie town, Connie Flood moves to Ottawa and becomes a reporter. Though she is hundreds of miles away from the prairie, years later her life intersects again with the dreaded head teacher, Mr. Burns, and the charming, dyslexic student, Michael, now a handsome man.

Alone in the Classroom contains plenty of twists and turns, forward and backward in time. Its greatest strength is its deeply descriptive language, of both landscape and people. At first the ending seemed weak, but I shouldn’t have expected this book to provide a pat conclusion with solid answers. As the narrator says, “I’m reminded of what Michael said about memory: the facts don’t matter; everything you learn blurs and merges and contributes to a way of seeing the world.”

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