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Alone in the Classroom

Alone in the Classroom

by Elizabeth Hay

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Hay is the winner of the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Ottawa Book Prize, and the Libris Award for Fiction Book of the Year for her novel Late Nights on Air. Hay's fourth novel, Alone in The Classroom is a Globe and Mail Best Book.

In a small prairie school in 1929, Connie Flood helps a struggling student, Michael Graves, learn


Hay is the winner of the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Ottawa Book Prize, and the Libris Award for Fiction Book of the Year for her novel Late Nights on Air. Hay's fourth novel, Alone in The Classroom is a Globe and Mail Best Book.

In a small prairie school in 1929, Connie Flood helps a struggling student, Michael Graves, learn how to read. Observing them and darkening their lives is the principal, Parley Burns, whose strange behavior 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.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
At the start of this ambitious, if overwritten, saga, which stretches from the prairies of Saskatchewan circa 1929 to the upscale precincts of present-day Ottawa, Anne Flood, a writer and sometime teacher, vividly recreates a defining moment from her mother’s youth, the murder of 13-year-old Ethel Weir. Anne’s iconoclastic, idolized aunt, Connie Flood, covers the crime for the Ottawa Journal. Since Anne herself doesn’t even play a significant role until almost two-thirds of the way through, readers will struggle to care about what otherwise might be shocking life decisions. Much of the intervening narrative concerns Connie’s transformation from an 18-year-old fledgling teacher in tiny Jewel, Saskatchewan—both dazzled and disgusted by “gentleman sadist” Parley Burns, the school’s principal—into a self-possessed woman of the world. But like the bare-bones production of Tess of the d’Urbervilles that Burns stages at the school, the novel, Canadian author Hay’s fourth (after Late Nights on Air), falls well short of achieving Hardyesque tragic resonance. Agent: Bella Pomer, Bella Pomer Agency (Canada). (Aug.)
From the Publisher
"Alone in the Classroom is a novel that can be read solely for its language, for the author's precise choice of words that make every landscape, every emotion and every reflection shimmer in colour and shape and texture.... It is a novel that deserves to be read simply for the truth it speaks about the universal desire to know and to understand the stories and experiences and people that shape individual lives and the lives of those who come after them.... Hay's fiction has always demonstrated a keen appreciation of people, places and history. This novel is further immutable evidence of that."—Sharon Chisvin, Winnipeg Free Press

"Alone in the Classroom is meant to be read slowly, or even better, read twice. The story that unfolds, replete with poetry and punishment, passionate entanglements and incestuous love, and is even richer and more rewarding the second time around."—Artha van Herk, The Globe and Mail

"There's nothing stiff about the fictional past brought to life in this compelling novel. In part, that's because of Hay's flair for evocative description, but also because she's a master of characterization. In their fallibility, their moral struggles and their conflicted desires, the characters of Alone in the Classroom ring utterly true."—Barbara Casey, Toronto Sun

"It's a testament to the quality of Hay's writing that the lack of a traditional ending tantalizes rather than disappoints; and the villain, Principal Parley Burns, who moves through the school â??like mustard gas in subtle form', is one of the most memorable villains I've ever encountered."—Laura Wilson, The Guardian

"Flawlessly rendered. Confidently told. A story that, viewed from above is gorgeous and rich and complete, the imperfections in the...—

"Eroticism and obsessive love are potent forces in Alone in the Classroom."—Maclean's

"Elizabeth Hay, 2007 Giller Prize winner for Late Nights On Air, returns with her fourth novel, a rich story of interweaving human relationships and generations of a family... If you're new to Elizabeth Hay, Alone in the Classroom will be an enjoyable introduction. Those anticipating her next book are unlikely to be disappointed."—Vancouver Sun

"An exquisite study of relationships... which meanders in graceful prose across the Canadian landscape and across generations."—Financial Times

"A multilayered tale, the novel is at once a love story, a murder mystery and a journey into the darkest chambers of the human heart... Hay's strange archeology of the heart will fascinate readers who like to delve deep into the mysteries of human nature, without the promise of treasure at the end--those who see the quest for meaning as a goal in itself.Â.Â. Hay's achingly poetic evocations of the landscape will leave a lasting impression, as will her uncanny gift of calling up childhood."—Ottawa Citizen

"A highly accomplished and resourceful stylist"—Paul Binding, The Spectator

"Alone in the Classroom is not merely a murder mystery. It mixes in layers of historic memoir, family secrets, romance and subtle hints of social commentary... It's also a story about obsession, childhood and the special relationships between daughters, mothers and aunts. All of which makes for an ambitious vision and unusually literary page-turner, appropriate for an author who has comfortably become part of CanLit royalty."—Calgary Herald

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Other children were out picking that morning, but she passed them by in her light-blue dress and sandals. “Ethel,” they called, and she gave a quick smile and went on up the road towards the woods and fields at the top of the hill. She had an empty kettle in each hand and was alone, despite having three sisters.

They were a family of bright solitaries, studious, quiet. Unlike anyone else in that town in the Ottawa Valley, she had been conceived in India, born in India, and raised there until the age of three. Her earliest memory was having warm water ladled over her hot head from an earthenware jar. For five years her father served in the British Army, then he left that parched and dusty land for the woods and rivers of Canada. In their apartment on the third floor of the Stewart Block adjoining the Rover Garage, there were a few keepsakes from that time, small ornaments, lacquered boxes, a monkey carved in ebony. Had they lived in a house with a veranda and a grassy yard, she might not have been so inclined to stay away for hours at a time.

Her mother, waiting impatiently for the plums to ripen, was no great admirer of chokecherries. Nevertheless, she simmered a second batch in a big preserving kettle and strained it through cheesecloth, then added four cups of sugar for every two cups of cherry juice and let the liquid boil until the flow of juice off a spoon turned to slower drips that came together in a sheet and broke off, at which point she removed the pot from the fire.

Ruby-sweet jelly was the ultimate goal, manufactured in summer kitchens for winter mornings. Pickers were out every day that summer, mainly children, the fruit uncommonly plentiful in a year that also saw a heavy growth of plums in gardens and fields. Blueberries had given promise, too, but in the hot, dry weather of late July the blue gold suffered a setback, and some were going as far away for them as the mountains of Pakenham.

Chokecherries merit the name, puckering one up even more than green apples. Held aloft on low and spindly trees, the size of peas, almost black when ripe and almost edible when black. Shiny black. Prune-black. Prunus virginiana. Not a name children knew, but they knew the word astringent.

Roads were narrower in 1937, more shaded. Cars less common and slower. Summer feet were bare and tough, or shod in old leather. Faces were careless of the sun. Noses burned, and children aided the peeling by picking the skin loose and giving it a fascinated tug. As many peelings per summer as there were pips in a winter grapefruit.

In a dress you were one flitting colour among many in a landscape that mobilized its colours into a procession of ripening – from wild strawberries in June more potent in flavour, more fragrant than twenty garden berries put together and reason for kneeling on the grassy verge, your face inches above your prey, your fingers gently grappling to dislodge the firm, pale, tiny necks from their leafy hulls – to raspberries in July that raked your hands and arms as you grabbed a thorny cane and swung it back like a throat about to be slit, the soft red fruit like gobbets of blood – to blueberries in August abloom with ghostly light that erased itself in your fingers. 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.

A deer came out of the bush. Hardly a sound. It was there, a tawny pose and wet eyes. They absorbed each other’s attention. The deer lowered its head and nibbled, Ethel moved closer. Around them was birdsong, breezes. One small branch of a leaning maple showed the first touch of red.

Early August. The jewelweed was in blossom, tomatoes were ripening, the morning became increasingly hot. Summer held. But school was in the air. Every child felt it. She was aware of precious time running out.

The search for the lost girl started at suppertime and spread rapidly. First, family and neighbours, then the police and Boy Scouts combed the Opeongo Road where she had been seen walking that morning. They moved out through the fields and along the creek, the Scouts blowing horns to communicate their whereabouts far and wide. Bugling criss-crossed the evening and gave the impression of a summer fox hunt. The sun began to go down.

Crows, not quiet before, were quiet now. A breeze picked up and stirred the leaves. Shadows deepened, but fields and woods were still clear enough to an accustomed eye. And a shout went up. A young man had stumbled over a body.

Word circulated through town, and an hour before midnight a ghost appeared. It lingered in front of the Argyle Hotel on Argyle Street, then continued on past Russell’s drugstore and Barker’s shoe store and over to the baseball diamond and the railway tracks in a slow, footless sort of swoop, a strange white moth involved in dusky explorations. A travelling player was drumming up an audience for the midnight “Ghost Show” at the O’Brien Theatre. He drew an overflow crowd. Many had to stand in the back, others were turned away. It was the summer equivalent of Santa: children were up way beyond their bedtimes and even more suggestible than usual.

By then everyone knew that thirteen-year-old Ethel Weir had been found at sunset in the bush on Ivey’s Hill. Her battered head lay in a pool of blood. Four feet away were two kettles, one of them partly filled with chokecherries, the other empty.

This part of the world is where I live now. At least in a general way. It contains the stream in which my grandmother washed herself in dumb panic upon finding a large red stain in her underwear – a motherless child raised by a Scottish grandmother who told her nothing. She passed on the favour, telling my mother nothing, even though they shared the same bed, and my mother passed this abashed ignorance on to me, asking me after the fact if I knew what to expect. It’s hard to credit in this age of palaver that people used to say so little about sex. Until it exploded in their faces, that is, at which point newspapers told all.

Two days after the murder, a name floated up on the front page of the Mercury. John Coyle, not an official member of the search party, “almost stumbled” over the corpse in a bush next to a grain field. Very quickly, suspicion veered from marauding cattle and prowling degenerates to the lone young man who had nearly tripped over the body. The hot breath of the newspaper. “Police are working on the theory that some local person committed the deed. Some questioning has occurred. It is felt that at any hour the mystery may be solved.”

The old see-saw from horrified belief to dizzy disbelief to entrenched belief. The town was busy weaving a story, meting out blame, finding symmetry and plot and motive. Johnny Coyle’s fascination with his crime, went common opinion, reflected the old desire to return to the scene – as I am doing right now in returning to this time and place, in revisiting my mother’s childhood in the valley.

Stories from her past draw me on. The shadows and underbrush, the evening light and imminent sorrow, until I stumble over what I’ve been looking for without quite knowing what it was, and look up. How dimly quiet the library is, how industrious the other researchers as they, too, ruin their eyes in moonlit woods of microfilm. Let’s not kid ourselves anymore about new technology.

In Ethel’s clenched hand were some fibres of green and yellow, light blue and rose, also dark blue, evidently wool, and some “pointed” hairs of a golden hue.

My mother knew Ethel’s sister, who was too shy to be a close friend. “I was shy,” my mother said, “and she was shyer.”

Meet the Author

Formerly a radio broadcaster, Elizabeth Hay's previous novels are the Giller Prize-winning Late Night on Air, A Student of Weather, which was a Giller Prize finalist, and Garbo Laughs, which won the Ottawa Book Award and was a finalist fore the Governor General's Award. She is also the author of non-fiction and two collections of short stories. In 2002 she received the prestigious Marian Engel Award for her body of work. Hay has spent time in Mexico and New York City.

From the Hardcover edition.

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