Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Book review: Alone in the Classroom

I have just finished reading Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay and it's left me still thinking about it which, to me, is a good sign.  But it's also left me feeling unfulfilled, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  It's only been about two hours since I finished the book, but I feel like this one will stay with me, much like Hay's previous novel Late Nights on Air has stayed with me.

Alone in the Classroom is really about the narrator, Anne, finding out about her family; the story centres on Anne relating stories about her aunt, Connie Flood.  Much like a tree, Connie's story is only one branch but it seems to be the sturdiest and most twisting branch of the tree, at least for Anne. 

Most of the book focuses on Connie, from her schoolteacher beginnings in rural Saskatchewan to her time at a newspaper in Ottawa back to schoolteaching in Maine.  Also intertwined with the branch that is Connie's life are the two men that influence Connie's life the most: her principal, Ian "Parley" Burns and one of her students, Michael Graves.  Both Parley and Michael play important roles in who Connie becomes and how she lives her life.

Also integral to the book are two tragic deaths of young school girls, one of which opens the book, and the reasons for these deaths that are only hinted at and alluded to, but never fully explained. 

It is the non-resolution behind the deaths that left me feeling unfulfilled, but there is enough information presented that the reader can draw her own conclusions and feel satisfied in their accuracy.  My problem is that I had an idea about one of them that I thought was pretty great - turns out I was either way off base or Hay didn't feel the need to clarify things for me.  But this is not a bad thing, merely something I will continue to think about as I dwell on the characters that I feel I know so much about.

And that is also the beauty of Hay's writing, her ability to make me think and care about her characters.  She also has a wonderful way with words when describing the outdoors and the wilds of Canada, which is evident both in Alone in the Classroom and Late Nights on Air.  I still think about the canoe trip in Late Nights, three years after reading the book.

This book feels like Canadian Literature with a capital "L", something I haven't indulged in for far too long.  After reading this book, I found my Toronto-dwelling self yearning for a cabin in the woods, a small lake and trees as far as the eye can see; thankful for the stability of my own relationship and that I'm spared the agonies of the heart experienced by Connie and Anne (and all the women in the book); and curious about my own family, wondering what stories might be hidden in my genealogy, what happiness and tragedy has shaped my own family.

1 comment:

jennyf said...

So exactly what I think!
The non-resolution of the deaths, including that of Parley.He just "went mad" & was disposed of in an asylum.
I was tempted to put the book aside ,but picked it up again because I felt sure we'd find out who brutally raped & murdered little Ethel.How on earth could the writer have left this unresolved?
I was so conflicted about this book, because the writing is gifted .
If this had been a memoir,the lack of resolution would be quite acceptable.But it's a novel.
I feel that too much was crowded into this book.I have read that a common mistake of new writers is to cram too much into their first book.I didn't expect this of an experienced writer.There was fertile material for 2 novels(at least) in this book.Or for a few collections of short stories.
I sensed Alice Munroe being emulated.....