Elizabeth Hay’s Alone in the Classroom starts a bit slow. It’s like one of those foreign movies where you don’t know what’s happening for the first 20 minutes and then it goes on to win several Sundance Film awards.
The story focuses on an old schoolhouse where a woman named Connie is teaching in 1929. The principal is a creepy, shady fellow who has a thing for Connie and possibly an ill-fated (and underaged) student named Susan Graves. But after Susan’s mysterious death, the story centres on her dyslexic brother, Michael. All of this is told through the lens of Anne – Connie’s niece. She re-traces her aunt’s story through a town in the Ottawa Valley named Argyle.
The imagery of the Canadian countryside is beautifully described in the novel but there’s always something a little sinister about it. The novel begins talking about children picking chokecherries (what a terribly named fruit). Alone in the Classroom is beautifully nuanced with a number of memorable characters.
Just when you least expect it, Hay makes you fall in love with the vast Canadian landscape and the charming cast of characters. And just like that, she shows you the harsh climate and magnifies the flaws of the characters – until she makes you love them again.
While slow at times, Alone in the Classroom is beautifully written. I was happy to be putty in the hands of Hay.