In a small prairie school in 1929, Connie Flood helps a backward student, Michael Graves, learn how to read. Observing them and darkening their lives is the principal, Parley Burns, whose strange behaviour culminates in an attack so disturbing its repercussions continue to the present day.
Connie’s niece, Anne, tells the story. Impelled by curiosity about her dynamic, adventurous aunt and her more conventional mother, she revisits Connie’s past and her mother’s broken childhood. In the process, she unravels the enigma of Parley Burns and the mysterious (and unrelated) deaths of two young girls. As the novel moves deeper into their lives, the triangle of principal, teacher, student opens out into other emotional triangles – aunt, niece, lover; mother, daughter, granddaughter – until a sudden, capsizing love thrusts Anne herself into a newly independent life.
This spellbinding tale – set in Saskatchewan and the Ottawa Valley – crosses generations and cuts to the bone. It probes the roots of obsessive love and hate, how the hurts and desires of childhood persist and are passed on as if in the blood. It lays bare the urgency of discovering what we were never told about the past. And it celebrates the process of becoming who we are in a world full of startling connections that lie just out of sight.
Following her award-winning, #1 bestselling Late Nights on Air, Alone in the Classroom is Elizabeth Hay’s most intricate, compelling, and seductive novel yet
At the start of this ambitious, if overwritten, saga, which stretches from the prairies of Saskatchewan circa 1929 to the upscale precincts of present-day Ottawa, Anne Flood, a writer and sometime teacher, vividly recreates a defining moment from her mother's youth, the murder of 13-year-old Ethel Weir. Anne's iconoclastic, idolized aunt, Connie Flood, covers the crime for the Ottawa Journal. Since Anne herself doesn't even play a significant role until almost two-thirds of the way through, readers will struggle to care about what otherwise might be shocking life decisions. Much of the intervening narrative concerns Connie's transformation from an 18-year-old fledgling teacher in tiny Jewel, Saskatchewan both dazzled and disgusted by "gentleman sadist" Parley Burns, the school's principal into a self-possessed woman of the world. But like the bare-bones production of Tess of the d'Urbervilles that Burns stages at the school, the novel, Canadian author Hay's fourth (after Late Nights on Air), falls well short of achieving Hardyesque tragic resonance.