Thursday, 27 December 2012

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 Valleycrosses 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.

About the Author
Elizabeth Hay was born in Owen Sound, Ontario. Hay has worked as a CBC broadcaster in Yellowknife, Winnipeg, and Toronto, and as an author writing in Mexico, New York, and Ottawa. She is the 2002 recipient of the Marian Engel Award in recognition of her illustrious body of work, has twice been nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, and is the winner of the 2007 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel Late Nights on Air.
Author Website: 



  1. I enjoyed this book very much - much more than the award-winning Late Nights On Air.

    First, I was struck by the quality of the writing. Normally, I am not much taken with descriptions of settings, but the author is very attuned to nature and through the author's skill with words, I was able to see and appreciate the various locations from Argyle, Ontario to Jewell Saskatchewan, from Connie's classroom to Michael's workshop. Hay was able to evoke the quality of the time period through carefully chosen detail. Her descriptions of characters are dense and filled with meaning, as in this description of Parley Burns at Connie's first meeting with him:
    "One morning he was there, a bachelor of thirty-five with dark hair turning grey at the sides and eyes that undressed a woman, clinical, dry, chafing, light-brown eyes that plumbed the depth of female inadequacy." p. 20 Digital Edition

    The characters were intriguing and aroused many questions in my mind. Was Connie a reliable witness? Was Parley really evil or was Connie unfair in her perceptions of him? Why was Anne's father so moody - was his relationship with her mother the loving one reported by Connie? Why was Michael unable to commit in a relationship? Why did Michael target Anne when he knew that she was Connie's niece? Why did Anne slide so easily into an affair with Michael? Why did the author choose to have the aunt and niece both destroy their marriages by affairs with Michael?

    The story of Parley, Susan's tragic death and the murder of Ethel kept me very interested. Anne's affair with Michael was less believable to me and at the moment I'm not sure that it was necessary to the novel.

  2. There was general agreement that the story started out with well developed, interesting characters and an engaging plot. In the second half of the book, these characters mostly disappeared from the story and the plot also faded away. Many readers were confused about the narrator at certain points and they found themselves flipping back and forth to figure out if the narrator had changed from Anne to someone else. Generally we only learn superficial things about the characters and we never learn the whole truth about any event. Does this allow for a better portrait of real life?

    It was suggested that there were so many characters and storylines that the author should have written two or three books with all this going on.

    What does the title mean? Some thought Alone in the Classroom would be about a teacher in a classroom with a bunch of troublesome kids but it’s not about this at all. Michael was alone with his dyslexia in the classroom until Connie became his teacher. Or is it that everyone is alone in the classroom of life? All the characters except Syd are very self-absorbed.

    Some found all the female characters unlikeable. Others only found Anne, the narrator unpleasant because she sneered at her mother’s domesticity and life style and because she had an affair with her aunt’s much older lover.

    Connie earned scorn from readers because she continually picked up men and then dropped them on a whim. But Connie was admired by others for her independence which could be misinterpreted as flightiness. Many wanted to know why Connie didn’t report Parley to Syd, previously her teacher and now the school inspector. Others thought there was really no evidence against Parley so she couldn’t report him. His character was smeared by implication. Parley later wrote a play that blamed the fire on Michael’s habit of playing with matches. Again, the author keeps us in the dark about what really happened.

  3. The male characters were generally better liked, particularly Syd. Some readers really wanted Parley to be guilty because he was so disagreeable. Others were convinced Parley was guilty because bad things happened to girls whenever he was around and then he committed suicide because he felt such remorse. Or perhaps he killed himself because he felt persecuted?

    Too many mysteries in the book were never solved or resolved. Why so much emphasis on birthmarks? Why does the author abandon the generally perceived plot half way through the story? Why was Anne’s husband so poorly developed as a character? Why so many details that didn’t contribute to the plot? Why introduce the storyline about Ethel’s death while berry picking? Why wasn’t Connie the narrator? Is there any significance to all the relationship triangles? What’s with all the berries? Is she following Tess of the d’Urbervilles storyline and is this significant?

    Some parts of the story are out of chronological order and some wondered if she needed a better editor or does the author not care about such details? An example of this is John Coyle’s conviction to be hanged in two months and then suddenly he’s free. Further on in the story it is explained that he was acquitted. Frustrated readers felt they were being disrespected. It was suggested that this could be a postmodern approach to storytelling but if that’s so, this technique didn’t help with clarity.

    Interestingly, it was pointed out that characters that inspire such dislike must be really well written. Others enjoyed the many beautifully written philosophically interesting paragraphs. To these readers, plot and character continuity are less important than the creative use of language. A reader liked the prairie classroom location because she started school in one and the author evoked this location effectively.

  4. For some, this was a story of self-discovery for Anne, the narrator. She decides she is named for her mother’s best friend rather than her despised grandmother and feels better about her name and thus herself. It doesn’t matter what’s true, only how you interpret it. We can recreate and reinvent with our life stories to redefine our current “reality”.

    It was suggested that this book needs to be read twice because there are so many things to think about that you don’t see at first. One reader who did read it twice hated the characters and the lack of plot even more.


    - Life is shaped by your history and your family’s history

    - You’re a part of everything and everyone you’ve met and come from

    - Once a female character is defiled they have to be killed off to be cleansed (i.e. Susan and Ethel)

    Book Club members were asked to rate the book out of 5 (5 being the highest score) Average rating was 2.