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Alone in the Classroom

by Elizabeth Hay

When, as a schoolgirl in the late 1940s, I drove my pony and trap eight miles to the five-sail mill to get our sack of Canadian wheat ground into flour to make bread, I never dreamed that seventy years later I would read a novel about the death of two girls, at the time my near contemporaries. The book is the work of a brilliant Canadian novelist. Her pages, written in 2012, blurred in my tears.

ALONE IN THE CLASSROOM is essentially concerned with the mysterious deaths of two schoolgirls in 1929 and 1937. The story is set in Saskatchewan and Ottawa: it brings to life the children, their fate, their families, the extraordinary vastness of Canada (almost as wide, it seems, as the sea that separates us) and the enigma of Parley Burns, principal of both children’s schools.

Central to the story is nineteen-year-old Connie who is teaching in the little prairie school at Jewel, Saskatchewan. She is fond of a dyslexic boy, Michael Graves, whom she helps to learn to read. Their lives are darkened and broken when Michael's sister is sexually assaulted by Parley Burns. The tragedy that follows drives a disgusted Connie to abandon teaching. She travels abroad, becomes a newspaper reporter, and as such, finds herself, thousands of miles from Jewel, writing about a second girl's death. It is nearly ten years later than the first heart-rending event. The victim is an unusual child, different from the other children. The young man accused of her murder and sentenced to hang is a lame youth. The principal of their school is the neatly gray-suited, gray-haired, highly-esteemed Parley Burns.

This is no who-done-it. The novel explores family relations and principal-student-teacher predicaments and tensions, the devotion of lonely women to a father figure, and the temptation, driven by envy, that two lovers pose to an outsider. The tale is told by Connie's niece, Anne. The narrative crosses the generations and should be read carefully in order to appreciate its richness and its author's genius as a storyteller.

Elizabeth Hay's previous novels are the Giller Prize-winning LATE NIGHTS ON AIR (highly praised in a previous Bookgroup.info review), A STUDENT OF WEATHER (a Giller Prize finalist), and GARBO LAUGHS, winner of the Ottawa Book Award and finalist for the Governor General's Award.

Paula McMaster

Published by Maclehose Press, 288pp. Hardback.

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