Alone in the Classroom (Emblem 2011) begins with a murder and the tension grows from there. In fact, the rate of revelation and tension in this novel is infinitely impressive. Our narrator, Anne, begins with the story of the death of a young girl, occurring when her own mother was young. It is also the moment in time when Anne’s mother meets Anne’s aunt, Connie, eventually leading to the meeting of Anne’s parents.
But this story is really about Connie and Anne takes us further back, to Connie at eighteen. 1929, rural Saskatchewan and Connie is a school teacher. She’s young and enthusiastic, passionate in many ways but also unsure of herself in a way painfully familiar to all of us who have been new in a job or, simply, eighteen-years-old.
Connie works under the principal of the tiny school, Parley Burns. Hay succeeds again here in creating the character of Mr. Burns. He’s older, more experienced, sophisticated. In many ways, an admirable character. And yet, Connie feels instinctively uncomfortable around him, as does the reader. Without resorting to stereotypes or offering up a black-and-white type villain, Hay creates a character who is undeniably creepy but not creepy enough to justify real action against. Which is so often the real life scenario people, especially women, find themselves in. Connie feels that his behaviour is wrong but doesn’t know how to react. Partially this is due to the time and the fact that he is an older man but the situation does not seem impossible today.
There’s a particularly chilling scene where Connie is leaving her classroom for the day and Mr. Burns and a young girls are left behind. Connie doesn’t feel right about leaving but she doesn’t know how to say anything and runs out of excuses to stay. It’s a perfectly evoked scene of powerlessness and a young woman who is sure of her gut but unsure how to act on it.
Where the book fell apart for me was in the last section. We move into the present day and follow Anne’s story, one I wasn’t particularly interested in. Hay created such a vivid and fascinating character in Connie that I didn’t want to let her go. The real problem though was the decisions that Anne makes. As her story continues, it seemed to negate, in part, some of what had come before and made me dislike both her and other characters. Characters I had enjoyed in Connie’s story. In the end, the book felt like Hay had multiple ideas for a plot and tried to fit them into one book. It doesn’t quite work, which is unfortunate because, over all, Alone in the Classroom is a terrific read.