Small Towns, Big Secrets in Elizabeth Hay's Richly Woven 'Alone in the Classroom'

by Zachary Houle

30 May 2011

Alone in the Classroom is a stirring, majestic tale that is ultimately about small towns in Canada and the many layered secrets that they harbour.
Elizabeth Hay 
cover art

Alone in the Classroom

Elizabeth Hay

(McClelland & Stewart)
US: Apr 2011

There’s a passage late in Elizabeth Hay’s exquisite Alone in the Classroom where the narrator, talking about her recollection of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, tells us, “It’s a novel that works better as poetry, although it’s the bare bones of plot I can’t forget.” That much is true of Alone in the Classroom as well, for Hay’s language is richly poetic but there’s a certain ebb, a rhythm, to her snake-like plot that sticks with you well after the final page is turned. The statement is an acutely apt one: a self-aware, even self-congratulatory, proclamation by the Ottawa, Canada, author writing about her own work, as if she knew all along of the spellbinding influence of how her sentences, blow by blow, would impact readers.

The appraisal might seem egotistical, but even so, the author has earned it with her latest. Alone in the Classroom, Hay’s follow-up to the Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning Late Nights on Air, has the author conjuring up a story that is multi-generational in arc and one that hop-scotches across geography. It’s a stirring, majestic tale that is ultimately about small towns in Canada and the many layered secrets that they harbour.

The small town element is a crucial one to bring up, for the novel takes place partially in eastern Ontario’s Ottawa Valley – a place where I came of age, making Alone in the Classroom somewhat of a personal and nostalgic read. If you’re from Brooklyn or London or Paris, books about your hometown are not only a given, but the characters that populate these books get swallowed up by the anonymity that big city life brings.

Books set in the Ottawa Valley, however, are a rarity and tend to be a big deal among locals when they get written, because everybody thinks that they’re about particular people. The characters that populate towns such as Barry’s Bay (where I grew up), Eganville, Killaloe and Arnprior tend to get their tongues a-wagging whenever anyone comes to write about their communities, as there tends to be a perception amongst those who populate these villages and towns in real life that an author is actually writing about the people who inhabit them and the deep, dark events that punctuate their timelines – something which gets the blood stirring and the phone lines overworked.

This actually happened when Gail Henley wrote a 1978 novel set in Barry’s Bay called Where the Cherries End Up (now out of print) which, according to my mother who still lives in the area, everyone bought with the singular vision of finding out and decoding which real life people Henley was writing about fictitiously. According to a friend of mine who grew up in the south-western Ontario town of Wingham, where Alice Munro writes, the same thing reportedly happens to said author: on the surface, villagers are supposedly nice to Munro as she goes about her business on a daily basis, but gossip, frown and parse behind her back as to which real life people she’s basing her short stories upon.

For that reason, it’s possible that Hay chose to write about a fictitious Ottawa Valley town called Argyle instead of a real-life community with a real name – but if you know the area very well you’ll obviously figure out that she’s writing about Renfrew, a town of about 5,000 people who live at the end of an old settlement trail, the Opeongo Line, just through some of the street names and references to buildings that she uses. This is, however, the only detail about life in the Ottawa Valley that Hay fudges, and it likely has to do with the fact that she has some very dark things to say about life in a rural community. Dark stuff that would get people on the phone to their neighbours about.

In fact, the novel opens starkly with the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl out collecting chokecherries to make jam with in 1937 Argyle, a time when the world seems ready to be plunged into war. It’s an event that’s narrated in the present by a character named Anne, gazing back at her genealogy as her aunt, Connie Flood, once a young schoolteacher but who is a journalist by the late-‘30s, was present in the town at the time of the murder.

This horrific act of violence isn’t the sole event of brutality in Alone in the Classroom, however. After dealing with the initial aftermath of the Argyle murder, the story flips back to rural Saskatchewan on the cusp of the Great Depression in 1929 and the story of a young girl, the same age as the Argyle victim, who has something terrible happen to her when left alone with an enigmatic male French teacher and school principal. We don’t know what happens – characters in the novel suspect that it’s rape, though they don’t know for sure – but it is terrible enough that when this young girl comes crying home to her family, her father is so embarrassed and ashamed that he locks her in her room, an act that has disastrous consequences of its own.

Connie Flood just so happened to be a fresh-faced, idealistic 18-year-old schoolteacher at the time of this particular event and its consequences, and when we meet up with her in 1937 Argyle, she happens to run into her old principal, Parley Burns, now working in an Argyle school. This sets up the reader to wonder if there’s any sort of connection between the events of 1929 and 1937, though Hay isn’t interested in telling a story here that’s a psychological whodunit.

Alone in the Classroom is more about the dark corners of these events that are fuzzy and out of focus, how small communities react to such events, and the shocking willingness of communities to simply forget and move on when something terrible happens to it. Still, as Anne points out late in the novel, while time may blur the collective memories of those involved in tragic things that spring forth in small towns, “we carry the past forward even when things and people are obliterated.”

However, murder and rape populate only the first half of Alone in the Classroom. By the time the novel progresses into its latter acts, it becomes an unconventional love story between Anne, Connie, and a character named Michael Graves, whom Connie personally tutored in 1929 as he was dyslexic, and just so happens to be the brother of the young girl to whom sinister things happened to in that solitary classroom after school. In doing so, Hay carries forward the weight that living in a community brings, and how the impact of the events of the past sully and strengthen the lives of those in the future.

In the latter stages of the book, the narrative jumps between different timelines and geographies: ‘40s Ottawa, ‘90s Vancouver, ‘80s Maine, and so it goes. There’s actually so much packed into Alone in the Classroom that the novel actually feels a great deal longer than its 300 page count – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In essence, Alone in the Classroom moves beyond small town Canada to more universal concerns, and there’s a great deal of delight – and much that the reader needs to stay focused on – to be found in wading through the various histories that populate the characters of this novel. (The margins are particularly wide, and invite you to make pencil notes of just whom is connected to whom.)

Michael is a noted whittler of wood and chalk, and the novel seems like a personification of his ability to weave wonders with his hands. It’s easy to just get lost in this book, and the rarefied, poetic language that Hay employs. About Michael’s whittling, Hay writes early that “[h]ow it lulls a person, the sight of work done easily and well and without conscious thought,” but she could have easily been writing about her own wonderful use of language. 

The characters are also another appealing aspect of Alone in the Classroom, because they’re all ciphers. You think you know them, but then they constantly surprise you. It’s hard to pick a particular example, but you could examine the character of Connie and how she grows and morphs from being a young, headstrong schoolteacher who makes the surprising transition to hard-nosed reporter, before almost surprising herself by becoming a schoolteacher again after many years.

There’s also a complexity as she moves from being Michael’s tutor to his eventual lover to someone who merely has a passing relation to him. Another thing done particularly well here is the characterization of small town living itself. In Saskatchewan, when a fire breaks out in a home and one of its occupants becomes essentially unable to be saved, the villagers then, selfishly, take to rescuing items of particular worth from the home instead – including a number of pans containing bread that’s still rising – as though they are of more import than an actual human life. It’s just little details like that which make Alone in the Classroom a telling and compulsive read.

There are a few scorch-marks, however, that prevent this novel from being perfect. Characters tend to bump into each other many years and many towns later through the lazy narrative device known as coincidence, which is fine in small doses but is carried on here with the weight of personal significance attached to it, making Alone in the Classroom a little melodramatic at times. There are also a few narrative lulls, such as the staging of a play based on Tess of the d’Urbervilles, that could have been whittled down without having a great deal of impact on the plot.

However, Alone in the Classroom is a richly textured bon-bon of a read, and it’s one that often hard to put down because of its dense layers. The book is tailored to the 50-something educated Canadian woman in its rendering, but that won’t stop other readers from appreciating the talent that Hay bursts forth with this novel. I would even go on to make the bold prediction that Hay has another chance at the Giller, which has the richest purse in all of Canadian letters, with this wonderfully delightful concoction.

Though it falls back on such Canadiana tropes as rural life and the past, Alone in the Classroom is a strong, captivating read, one that ideally will have tongues wagging in the Ottawa Valley – not just because it may or may not be about certain real-life people that it draws upon, but because it’s a stirring, bold statement from an author working at the peak of her very capable powers.

Alone in the Classroom



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