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Monday, January 27, 2014

Alone in the Classroom: Intriguing and Multi-layered

Over the holidays I read Alone in theClassroom by Elizabeth Hay (2011). Once I started reading, I could not stop until I had finished it.
Reading tastes, of course, are very personal, often depending upon your state of mind at the time. I had enjoyed her Giller Prize-winning Late Nights on Air (2007) & A Student of Weather (2000), so I looked forward to reading her latest novel. Set in small town Saskatchewan & the Ottawa Valley, the plot revolves around the experiences & memories of Connie Flood, who starts out as a young teacher in small town Saskatchewan in 1929. Other memorable characters include Principal Parley Burns, menacing & creepy (who moves through the school "like mustard gas in subtle form") & Michael, a dyslexic student who is tutored by Connie. The love & hate triangle between these three allows Hay to explore how our past resides in our present. The story spans several generations, from 1929 to 2008, narrated by Connie's niece, Anne. While doing research into her mother's childhood, Anne becomes fascinated by the life of her adventurous aunt.
Hay's novels are always strongly character-driven & include landscape & small town life as significant characters in themselves. The tale is not without drama, with one murder & other mysterious events. Although Alone in the Classroom starts a bit slowly & it is sometimes difficult to keep track of the characters, it is an intriguing, many-layered tale written in Hay's always richly poetic language. Aritha Van Herk, in her Globe and Mail review, says, “Alone in the Classroom is meant to be read slowly, or even better, read twice. The story that unfolds, replete with poetry and even richer and more rewarding the second time around.”

Diana Inselberg is a retired librarian and resident of Enderby.

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