Some years ago I picked up Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air fully expecting to enjoy it, and found that the book, while well written, didn’t really engage me. So I didn’t go out of my way to seek out Alone in the Classroom, but when it fell into my lap, more or less (my digital lap, because it was available from the libraries e-book borrowing service) I gave it at try, and was hooked from page 1.
The novel centres around two acts of violence committed against young girls in rural Canada — one in late 1920s Saskatchewan, and the second in a small Ontario town in the 1930s. But the crimes themselves are not really what the novel is about: they are linked by a woman, Connie Flood, who is a schoolteacher in the town where the first crime occurs, and reports on the second as a journalist after she has changed careers. The other link is a man who was school principal in both communities, who was most likely the perpetrator of the first act of violence but seems to be uninvolved in the second. Naturally both Connie and the reader wonder if there’s a stronger link, but that’s not really where the story is going.
It’s not going anywhere very definitive, plot-wise, but it’s an enjoyable journey. Mostly it’s the story of Connie’s life and her relationship with her former student Michael, brother of the girl who died in Saskatchewan. Gradually the narrator, Connie’s niece Anne, also comes to take a central role in the story and develops her own complex relationship with Michael. As for Connie’s old principal, Parley Burns, he remains an enigmatic figure till the end, both menacing and pitiable. It’s by no means a tightly plotted novel, but it is one that delves deeply into both character and setting and is full of careful nuanced detail, a book that thoughtfully explores how complicated an unexpected are the connections between teacher and student, between lovers and friends, between the past and the present.