Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay (Canada) - (US)
Finished: May 12, 2011
First Published: Apr. 26, 2011 (CAN)
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
Genre: literary fiction, historical
Other children were out picking that morning, but she passed them by in her light-blue dress and sandals.
Acquired: Received a review copy from Random House Canada.
Reason for Reading: I've been interested in reading this author for a while now and haven't got around to it yet. The early 1930's and the Saskatchewan setting pulled me into starting off with her latest book.
An excellent book! Though a hard one to describe. The plot has many layers and is meandering to the point where it is not exactly what drives the book. The book is most certainly character driven and the relationships between these characters are what propels the story along. The story covers the time period from 1929 to 2008 and focuses on one Connie Flood, a school teacher, journalist, traveler; a woman of independence who takes lovers as she wants them and lives life to its fullest according to her small needs though she has a large presence. The book is told from the point of view of Connie's niece, who is telling the story from the first person, looking back telling a tale of which she is omniscient from each individual character's thoughts and feelings. This pov was hard to get used to, I must admit. The narrator only appears in the beginnings of the story a few times and when the word "I" is used I found it confusing to remember that "I" was not Connie but the narrator, Anne. This becomes more clear a little over half way through the book when Anne actually becomes a character in the story but then the flipping from near past to far past with this continued point of view still felt unusual to me. Now, it's not that I was totally annoyed with the pov, it was just hard to remember who was telling the tale, and it did slow down my reading speed.
The characters and their relationships, mostly triangles, are what make this book such an enticing, intense read. First of all, the element that brings all the persons together and moves the plot along is the brutal, unrelated, deaths of two young girls some years apart. The same character's are around at these times and this is what sets Anne off into investigating her aunt's past, perhaps to solve an unsolved crime. I've discussed Connie and Anne, but also there are two men to round out the main characters. Parley Burns, school teacher, principal, refined, detached, strict, perhaps mentally unstable, who has feelings for Connie. Secondly Michael, an older student at the school, not much younger than Connie herself who is slow and ridiculed as such; he is what would have been called dyslexic in the future, but not mentally challenged at all, and Connie takes a shine to him in trying to teach him to read. In fact, they take a shine to each other. The triangles that shape the book are principal, teacher, student then later on husband, wife and lover, a chance meeting turns us to aunt, niece, lover and in the background there is even grandmother, mother, daughter to overcome in the end.
A wonderfully written book, I enjoyed tremendously with characters that will remain with me, especially Parley and Michael; but a slow-paced meandering read that will take your attention to appreciate fully.