Friday, September 30, 2011
Guest Post- Judi Witzig's review of Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay
Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay
Elizabeth Hay has written a beautiful painting of a story of two generations of women living and loving their lives back and forth across the plains and cities of Canada. Hay’s descriptions of the lands, fields and forests that the story inhabits provide a setting that binds the characters together. The story begins with the murder of a young girl, out picking chokecherries, but the narrator Anne, is introduced well into the first chapter. Anne is the next generation, and her story is intermixed through the sharing of the story of her Aunt Connie, a teacher and her mother’s sister. Tragedy, like this murder, stalks those around her, striking intermittently but repeatedly. Few men populate this book and the three with telling roles in the story, Parley, Michael and Syd, serve as the loom on which Elizabeth Hay weaves the stories of these women’s lives.
The story ripples out across the countryside with the story of Connie as a young woman, teaching in a rural school. Parley is the school’s headmaster, Michael is Connie’s struggling student and Syd the Board of Education traveling evaluator. Connie’s story begins with her teaching, Parley’s understated wooing of Connie, and then of his treachery with Michael’s sister through his staging of a play – Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The ensuing death of Michael’s sister leaves a stain on each of these three lives. Syd is introduced, providing guidance and surety through the aftermath. A chance encounter years later during a train ride finds Connie, now a newspaper reporter, on a train with Parley and his wife and step daughter. All survive the train crash however lives are again stained in its aftermath.
Michael returns and through Anne’s affair with him, we learn of his and Connie’s love affair. The later affair brings a strain and creates a separation between Connie and Anne. Connie’s affair with Michael leads to the end of her brief marriage to Syd. Connie seeks out Parley in his self-imposed incarceration in a sanatorium after establishing another school across the provinces. The visit provides no satisfaction to either Connie or Parley who takes his own life in the subsequent years.
Anne’s story comes more into focus at this point in the story, usurping Connie’s which serves as the parallel to Anne’s growing self-awareness. It is the excavation of Connie’s story that brings the story of Anne and her artist mother. Michael reappears again at the end of his life, the continuing essence that binds the women. Syd too reappears, the survivor. Alone in the Classroom ends gently with Anne’s memories of Connie, Michael and a chance encounter with Paley’s surviving step daughter set forth in her writing. Her own search for self and identity tied back, as she learns, to another’s death in the same train crash that spared Connie and Parley.
Hays' female characters provide strong insights into what makes them tick. Yet the men in the lives of these women blow like the wind, sometimes strong and destructive, sometimes gentle and caressing – tugging and pushing at the lives the women lead. Alone in the Classroom is a compelling read that I enjoyed while sitting on the shores of Lake Ontario.