Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay. McClelland & Stewart 2011.
Alone in the Classroom begins with a murder. It is 1937 in a small town in the Ottawa Valley. A young girl who has gone off by herself to pick chokecherries has been found murdered. There are no witnesses, but suspicion falls on the young man who discovered her body. When Connie Flood, a reporter for the local newspaper, attends the girl’s funeral, a second ceremony is taking place. She recognizes a man in the crowd, Parley Burns.
I was expecting the author to build a mystery upon this foundation, but this story isn’t about the young victim. Rather, it serves to introduce Connie Flood, who is at the centre of an intergenerational tale of lives lived and loves found and lost. The narrator is Connie’s niece Anne, the daughter of Connie’s brother and his wife. The chance meeting of Connie and Burns transports the reader back to 10 years earlier, when Connie was a young teacher in Saskatchewan and Burns was the school principal. One of Connie’s students was Michael, an adolescent with what we would now call dyslexia. Connie devotes herself to helping Michael learn to read. Meanwhile, the dark and peculiar Burns works with Michael’s gifted older sister. Events transpire that will lead to disaster and repurcusions of these events will echo far into the future.
Historian and writer Anne admires her unconventional Aunt Connie, who is so different from her own mother. Anne is inspired to delve into family history and in so doing she finds that the course of her own life is altered. “You touch a place and thousands of miles away another place quivers. You touch a person and down the line the ghosts of relatives move in the wind.”
Alone in the Classroom is a subtle, haunting work that sticks with you after you have finished reading. Ultimately the book is not about events but about how those events shape the people involved. ‘Alone in the Classroom’ has a double meaning, referring both to circumstances that lead to a tragedy in long ago Saskatchewan but also to Anne’s own experience of being compelled by her father to study alone in a classroom, nervous, undefended, as one ultimately is in life.