Review: Alone in the Classroom – Elizabeth Hay

Elizabeth Hay is a talented Canadian author who in 2007 won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel, “Late Nights on Air“. Her newest novel “Alone in the Classroom” is out in stores today and I believe that Hay has created another masterpiece of complex and interesting characters. The story takes place in a number of years, that span from the year 1929 until 2007. We first enter the story in 1937, when we are introduced to little Ethel Weir who is brutally murdered in the woods while out picking choke cherries. Everyone in the small town of Ottawa River is baffled by her brutal attack and begins to point fingers at the man who found her body, Johnny Coyle. At Ethel’s funeral and the conjoining funeral of another resident across the way, we are introduced to two characters that shape and create the story that is “Alone in the Classroom”, Ian Burns, often referred to as “Parley” and Connie Flood.

Back in 1929, both Parley and Connie taught at a school in Jewel, Saskatchewan where Connie has suspicions about Parley early on, always questioning his motives and actions. Both teachers get very much involved with the two children in the Graves family, older sister Susan and younger brother Michael. Parley spends hours and hours preparing the talented and beautiful Susan for starring in the play he’s producing for the town. Meanwhile, Michael unfortunately has difficulty reading and Connie decides to take him under her wing to try to teach him how to read literature. Their one on one time with the Graves children is very suspect. Even more so when one day little Susan Graves runs home after an unexplained incident taking place in the classroom after school with Parley. What ends up happening to poor Susan is tragic and her fate is enough to leave you with your hand over your mouth in shock. Lives begin to fall apart at this point and the school that should be referred to as a safe haven, becomes anything but.

The bond formed between young Michael and Connie continues to prosper over the years and their relationship becomes complex and interesting to say the least. The story is told from the perspective of Anne Flood, Connie’s niece. She tells the story because she is intrigued by Connie and holds her in such high regard because of the life Connie has created for herself. Over the years, Connie travels from Saskatchewan, to Ottawa, to Boston and the whole time she maintains a sense of strength and independence no matter what obstacles come her way. We’re reintroduced to Michael in the later years and his character has developed in quite an interesting way as well. We also get to learn more about Parley and the interesting life he chose to lead. The narrator Anne seems to be an outsider for most of the story, yet somehow seems to be present the whole time. Her story starts to interweave near the end giving the novel a much more complex and complete feel.  

This is a story of family dynamics, hidden secrets and mystery. Elizabeth Hay has once again created a story that is gripping and is guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat as you turn each page.

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6 thoughts on “Review: Alone in the Classroom – Elizabeth Hay

  1. Wanda says:

    Alone in the Classroom appears to have a few things in common with The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald. Loved Late Night on Air so I’m really looking forward to reading this one. Great review, thanks!

  2. Jen Fletcher says:

    For me the book fails ,in spite of gifted writing,because we never know who killed little Ethel so brutally.
    Also, Parley Burns’ attack on MIchael’s young sister is glossed over too easily. We need to know what happened,more explanation of her father’s shame.
    Parley Burns is described as a frustrated ,tormented man. No explanation, no depth …he just “went mad ” in the end.
    If it’s a memoire, that’s understandable.But this is a novel.
    A novel requires more…….we need to know more about what happened &why.

  3. Cathy says:

    I agree. The novel is beautifully written, and I love Elizabeth Hay. But what happened? Anne is supposed to be researching these incidents, and certainly asks a lot of questions… but we never get the two mysteries explained satisfactorily. I probably could have lived with one mystery not explained, but two? The ending was disappointing, to say the least, especially when placed in contrast to the wonderful opening chapter describing Ethel’s walk to go berry picking.

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