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
Other children were out picking that morning, but she passed them by in her light- blue dress and sandals. “Ethel,” they called, and she gave a quick smile and went on up the road towards the woods and fields at the top of the hill. She had an empty kettle in each hand and was alone, despite having three sisters.
They were a family of bright solitaries, studious, quiet. Unlike anyone else in that town in the Ottawa Valley, she had been conceived in India, born in India, and raised there until the age of three. Her earliest memory was having warm water ladled over her hot head from an earthenware jar. For five years her father served in the British Army, then he left that parched and dusty land for the woods and rivers of Canada. In their apartment on the third floor of the Stewart Block adjoining the Rover Garage, there were a few keepsakes from that time, small ornaments, lacquered boxes, a monkey carved in ebony. Had they lived in a house with a veranda and a grassy yard, she might not have been so inclined to stay away for hours at a time. Her mother, waiting impatiently for the plums to ripen, was no great admirer of chokecherries. Nevertheless, she simmered a second batch in a big preserving kettle and strained it through cheesecloth, then added four cups of sugar for every two cups of cherry juice and let the liquid boil until the flow of juice off a spoon turned to slower drips that came together in a sheet and broke off, at which point she removed the pot from the fire.
Ruby- sweet jelly was the ultimate goal, manufactured in summer kitchens for winter mornings. Pickers were out every day that summer, mainly children, the fruit uncommonly plentiful in a year that also saw a heavy growth of plums in gardens and fields. Blueberries had given promise, too, but in the hot, dry weather of late July the blue gold suffered a setback, and some were going as far away for them as the mountains of Pakenham.
Chokecherries merit the name, puckering one up even more than green apples. Held aloft on low and spindly trees, the size of peas, almost black when ripe and almost edible when black. Shiny black. Prune- black. Prunus virginiana. Not a name children knew, but they knew the word astringent.
Roads were narrower in 1937, more shaded. Cars less common and slower. Summer feet were bare and tough, or shod in old leather. Faces were careless of the sun. Noses burned, and children aided the peeling by picking the skin loose and giving it a fascinated tug. As many peelings per summer as there were pips in a winter grapefruit.
In a dress you were one flitting colour among many in a landscape that mobilized its colours into a procession of ripening – from wild strawberries in June more potent in flavour, more fragrant than twenty garden berries put together and reason for kneeling on the grassy verge, your face inches above your prey, your fingers gently grappling to dislodge the firm, pale, tiny necks from their leafy hulls – to raspberries in July that raked your hands and arms as you grabbed a thorny cane and swung it back like a throat about to be slit, the soft red fruit like gobbets of blood – to blueberries in August abloom with ghostly light that erased itself in your fingers. The whole landscape was a painting come to life, and not a Canadian painting (no if figures allowed), but a European painting, peopled and unpeopled, storied, brazen.
A deer came out of the bush. Hardly a sound. It was there, a tawny pose and wet eyes. They absorbed each other’s attention. The deer lowered its head and nibbled, Ethel moved closer. Around them was birdsong, breezes. One small branch of a leaning maple showed the first touch of red. Early August. The jewelweed was in blossom, tomatoes were ripening, the morning became increasingly hot. Summer held. But school was in the air. Every child felt it. She was aware of precious time running out.
The search for the lost girl started at suppertime and spread rapidly. First, family and neighbours, then the police and Boy Scouts combed the Opeongo Road where she had been seen walking that morning. They moved out through the fields and along the creek, the Scouts blowing horns to communicate their whereabouts far and wide. Bugling criss- crossed the evening and gave the impression of a summer fox hunt. The sun began to go down.
Crows, not quiet before, were quiet now. A breeze picked up and stirred the leaves. Shadows deepened, but fields and woods were still clear enough to an accustomed eye. And a shout went up. A young man had stumbled over a body.
Word circulated through town, and an hour before midnight a ghost appeared. It lingered in front of the Argyle Hotel on Argyle Street, then continued on past Russell’s drugstore and Barker’s shoe store and over to the baseball diamond and the railway tracks in a slow, footless sort of swoop, a strange white moth involved in dusky explorations. A travelling player was drumming up an audience for the midnight “Ghost Show” at the O’Brien Theatre. He drew an overflow crowd. Many had to stand in the back, others were turned away. It was the summer equivalent of Santa: children were up way beyond their bedtimes and even more suggestible than usual.
By then everyone knew that thirteen- year- old Ethel Weir had been found at sunset in the bush on Ivey’s Hill. Her battered head lay in a pool of blood. Four feet away were two kettles, one of them partly filled with chokecherries, the other empty.
This part of the world is where I live now. At least in a general way. It contains the stream in which my grandmother washed herself in dumb panic upon finding a large red stain in her underwear – a motherless child raised by a Scottish grandmother who told her nothing. She passed on the favour, telling my mother nothing, even though they shared the same bed, and my mother passed this abashed ignorance on to me, asking me after the fact if I knew what to expect. It’s hard to credit in this age of palaver that people used to say so little about sex. Until it exploded in their faces, that is, at which point newspapers told all. Two days after the murder, a name floated up on the front page of the Mercury. John Coyle, not an official member of the search party, “almost stumbled” over the corpse in a bush next to a grain field. Very quickly, suspicion veered from marauding cattle and prowling degenerates to the lone young man who had nearly tripped over the body. The hot breath of the newspaper. “Police are working on the theory that some local person committed the deed. Some questioning has occurred. It is felt that at any hour the mystery may be solved.”
The old see- saw from horrified belief to dizzy disbelief to entrenched belief. The town was busy weaving a story, meting out blame, finding symmetry and plot and motive. Johnny Coyle’s fascination with his crime, went common opinion, reflected the old desire to return to the scene – as I am doing right now in returning to this time and place, in revisiting my mother’s childhood in the valley. Stories from her past draw me on. The shadows and underbrush, the evening light and imminent sorrow, until I stumble over what I’ve been looking for without quite knowing what it was, and look up. How dimly quiet the library is, how industrious the other researchers as they, too, ruin their eyes in moonlit woods of microfilm. Let’s not kid ourselves anymore about new technology.
In Ethel’s clenched hand were some fibres of green and yellow, light blue and rose, also dark blue, evidently wool, and some “pointed” hairs of a golden hue. My mother knew Ethel’s sister, who was too shy to be a close friend. “I was shy,” my mother said, “and she was shyer.”
Towards suppertime I leave the library and step outside into a haze of twenty- first- century sunshine and wind. Wellington Street in Ottawa. Behind me the Ottawa River flows east, and upriver, sixty miles from here and a bit inland, is the town I have been reading about, my mother’s hometown. I bicycle south, heading home through a flood of April light, and nothing around me is as clear as the colours and threads in Ethel’s hand, those makings for a tiny nest. Birds everywhere, but no leaves, not yet, though the red maple at the foot of my garden earns its name by staining the air dark crimson with minute, discreet blossom. In the morning, taking my pillow with me, I lie at the foot of the bed in order to see the colour through the upstairs window.
We have the most beautiful tree in the world. It turns my head every spring and again every fall when I step into this second- floor study and receive a bouquet the size of my window. Our house and garden used to belong to a botanist who was fascinated with orphan plants, waifs, like the Kaladar cactus first discovered a two- hour drive west of here in 1934, then lost from view and subsequently rediscovered in 1947, an isolated and vulnerable plant six hundred miles east of its Wisconsin home. The botanist used to sit on the front porch in a white chair and when he went inside he left a sign on the chair saying Open for business. You could bring him any flower or leaf and he would identify it. My study used to be full of plants that he watered in the nude. I am sorry not to have known him, though very probably he was best in small doses, because there are so many things I would like to identify and because the story I’m telling now is another story of discovery and rediscovery, not botanical but personal. Perhaps every family tale falls into this category: a child discovers something the parent has neglected to tell her and brings it into view again, naming it and locating it and establishing its importance.
What happened that August Tuesday in 1937 lived on in my mother’s mind, not that she ever mentioned it to me until long after I left home. Nor did she temper any of my own youthful wanderings with a warning. I went out into the world as free of apprehension as was Ethel Weir on the day she went to pick chokecherries, wearing a blue dress of synthetic silk and a green slip underneath it.
Birds compete for the berries. Robins peck the guts out of strawberries. Finches, robins, blue jays, kingbirds, cedar waxwings – all of them go after the chokecherries that favour fencerows and roadsides and the edges of open woods. Crows fancy the metallic glints of the kettles and pails children carry as they wander into the open centre of wild- plum thickets, or into the grassy meadow next to a little- used airfield, or into an abandoned orchard on a southern slope, or along the railway’s right- of- way, or down a path skirting a grain field towards the straggly, ragged chokecherry bushes above the creek, or into the woods for shade and rest.
Murdered in the morning, it was thought, for by the time they found her body, it was stiff. Dead eight to ten hours, the coroner said. They carried the body on a blanket out of the woods and transported it by car to the funeral parlour on Argyle Street. Three days later, several hundred people, mostly women and children (though not my mother and grandmother, they were at the lake), gathered at the Presbyterian Church for the morning funeral. A closed white casket. And afterwards, interment in the Angusville Cemetery.
Another funeral took place in the afternoon, another instance of sudden and perplexing death. A doctor had died on the operating table. On Tuesday evening (as the search was on for Ethel), Dr. Thomas entered the hospital and on Wednesday morning his heart gave out, an apparently rugged man with a heavy practice and a long history in the town.
Some who went to the first funeral attended the second, among them a reporter for the Ottawa Journal and the source of much of what I know. Connie Flood stayed on in the cemetery, notepad against her propped- up knees and her back against a tree, a young woman who made a desk for herself wherever she went. The cemetery was on a grassy hill half a mile from town. A white fence separated it from the road, and the large swing gates were open. The second funeral came through the gates, a sombre parade led by a firing party of the Lanark and Argyle Scottish Regiment with arms reversed. From a curious distance, Connie noted the contrast with the earlier scene of mothers holding their children by the hand, the bereaved family bent- shouldered and willowy, the sisters bare armed in summer dresses and flat, flowered straw hats, purchased for Easter probably, the mother in black, the father in black, the ceremony at the graveside drenched in tears and formality beside the point. Afterwards, the mourners left the baked cemetery for more of the noonday sun, some walking, some in cars.
In the second case, all the motions mattered. The regiment fired three volleys over the grave, then the pipe major played the customary lament and a comrade sounded the last post. A prominent citizen was being buried and prominent citizens were in attendance. Connie lingered on the edges. The dead man apparently had no children, no wife. It was hard to say. Two women seemed front and centre, aunts perhaps or sisters. And men in dark suits and hats, older men, established men, and suddenly the air went funny and the ground shifted. She drew near to make sure.
ELIZABETH HAY is the author of the Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning novel Late Nights On Air as well as three other award-winning works of fiction, Small Change, A Student of Weather, and Garbo Laughs. Formerly a radio broadcaster, she has spent time in Mexico and New York City, and now lives in Ottawa.close this panel
A Globe and Mail Best Book
"Luminous. . . . Alone in the Classroom is meant to be read slowly, or even better, read twice. The story that unfolds, replete with poetry and punishment, passionate entanglements and incestuous love, is even richer and more rewarding the second time around."
—Globe and Mail
"Gripping. . . . A multilayered tale, the novel is at once a love story, a murder mystery and a journey into the darkest chambers of the human heart. Transcendent prose. . . . [Hay] conveys masterfully the complex power plays of the classroom."