Nerves

You finish writing a book and relax for a bit. I finished His Whole Life in March and now it’s the end of June. The book will come out in August.

That’s soon. And what always happens is happening again. I imagine having to talk about the novel at readings and interviews and the like, and a sort of amnesia sets in. My mind goes blank. I don’t believe I have anything at all to say and it unnerves me.

A few days ago, a friend mentioned the Cambridge novels of C. P. Snow. Now that’s a name I haven’t heard for a long time, although he was certainly big enough fifty years ago. Since my son is living in Cambridge, my friend thought he would enjoy Snow’s novels, which he remembered in impressive detail. Then yesterday I found one of them in my mailbox with a note: “Not one of the Cambridge ones but it will give you a taste. No need to return.”

The Conscience of the Rich. 1958. I started to read it and on the first page found described my own problem. The narrator is writing a final examination and can’t make sense of the words on the question-paper. “At the beginning of each examination I was possessed in this way: as though by a magnified version of one of those amnesias in which a single word – for example TAKE – looks as though we have never seen it before, and in which we have to reassure ourselves, staring at the word, that it occurs in the language and that we have used it, spelt exactly in that fashion, every day of our lives.”

Then suddenly his amnesia vanishes and he is “reading, deciding, watching myself begin to write,” absorbed in the job at hand. “This I could do; I was immersed in a craftman’s pleasure.”

To answer as a craftsman or woman, that’s all that’s required. How did I go about making His Whole Life? I can talk about that when I’m asked about my book.

In my mailbox this morning was another of Snow’s novels, The Affair, and another note. “Liz: This is one of the Cambridge novels – a double from the cottage – no need to return. Don’t feel an obligation to read it.”

And I’m utterly charmed. What another lovely gift – an orange Penguin like the first one, a reprint from 1968. Price in Canada $0.95.

Other books and other readers (and the conversation that arises) always manage to take me into wider waters.

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Reader’s Guide for Late Nights on Air

Discussion Questions for Late Nights on Air

  1. Harry Boyd, an admitted romantic, tries to make an impression on Dido Paris by setting her news script on fire while she is on the air. Fire is an ancient metaphor for passion, and Late Nights on Air could be described as an anthology of romantic love. Mrs. Dargabble’s first husband had urged her to “jump,” and many of the characters do, with differing results — from the sexually charged union of Eddy and Dido to more gradual entanglements. Discuss the varieties of love present in this small, isolated community. Which ones strike you as the most successful?
  2. One of Elizabeth Hay’s great novelistic strengths is her sense of place and the ways she knits her characters into their settings. In her first novel, A Student of Weather, the places included Saskatchewan, New York City, and Ottawa; her second novel, Garbo Laughs, is set in Ottawa, most memorably during the ice storm of 1998. In Late Nights on Air, set in Yellowknife and the North, the sense of place and her characters’ relationship to it is particularly intense. Sometimes readers talk about a novel’s setting as if it were a character in itself. Do you think that is the case in Late Nights on Air? What descriptions of place, in Yellowknife or on the canoe trip into the Arctic wilderness, have stayed with you most? How does the sense of place work to underscore and echo the characters and their situations or to contrast with them?
  3. In Late Nights on Air, fictional characters interact with a real, contemporary person, Judge Thomas Berger. Although they only interact with him minimally and formally, Berger and his commission are important components in the novel. Discuss Berger’s approach and personality, the ways in which it informs the Inquiry, and the place of the man and the Inquiry in Late Nights on Air.
  4. Late Nights on Air begins with Harry falling in love with the sound of Dido’s voice. In the novel, Gwen finds her radio voice — both in the sense of finding an attractive physical voice and in the sense of expressing her own personality. Voice and sound in general are natural preoccupations for people who work in radio, and the novel pays consistent attention to them, from Gwen’s fascination with sound effects to the voices of the announcers (in English and Dogrib), and the many descriptions of natural sounds and music. Discuss some of the ways Elizabeth Hay uses voice to characterize her men and women, and to highlight her larger themes.
  5. Elizabeth Hay says in her acknowledgements that the story of the adventurer John Hornby was always at the back of this book. A fascination with Hornby and Edgar Christian is one of the things Gwen and Harry have in common, and the explorers’ cabin is the destination of the canoe trip that takes Harry and Gwen, Eleanor and Ralph into the wilderness, where their lives will change forever. Does Hornby’s story of a quixotic and doomed exploration connect with, and perhaps comment on, the story of the modern characters — and if so, in what ways?
  6. One of the most sophisticated elements in an Elizabeth Hay novel is the fact that her flawed characters don’t find any conversion or easy resolution: Dido, for example, cannot bear criticism, and Harry, a veteran radio man, can’t separate his personal failure in television from the medium in general. Problems don’t get neatly wrapped up in Late Nights on Air, and the characters, though changed, in many ways end as imperfect as they began. Discuss some of the things that the characters have learned in the end — about each other and about themselves. Discuss some of the situations or personalities that never get “fixed,” and the particular flavour this gives the book.
  7. Harry’s relationship with Dido is never really fulfilled, but Harry’s yearning remains largely undiminished. What do you think the author is saying about human beings in general?
  8. Just before he died, Eleanor’s father was reading her the French story of “la fille qui était laide” — a girl so ugly that she hid herself in the forest where the fresh air, sun, and wind made her beautiful. The narrator tells us that, in the summer of 1975, a version of that story would unfold. The theme of this kind of transformation has been seen before in an Elizabeth Hay novel (A Student of Weather). Who is the transformed woman in Late Nights on Air — or should it be “women”? How does it happen?
  9. Discuss Dido and her personality, and how she powerfully affects each of the characters — Harry, Gwen, Eleanor, Eddy. To what extent is she affected by her past? Where does her power really lie? Is she, in fact, as confident and strong as she seems?
  10. There are frequent instances of foreshadowing in Late Nights on Air. The narrator writes, for example, about three unfortunate things that would happen to Harry in the coming winter, and in another place that “the events of the following summer would make these pictures of Ralph’s almost unbearably moving.” The reader is regularly pulled into the characters’ futures, but without knowing the details. In what way does foreshadowing function in the novel? How does it affect your reading experience?
  11. Eleanor, who is reading William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, has a religious awakening in the course of the book. Most of the other characters don’t share her connection with institutionalized religion, but there is a strong undercurrent of spirituality in the book, felt differently by different characters. Discuss the varieties of religious or spiritual experience you find in the book.
  12. There is an elegiac tone in Late Nights on Air, and a sense that an older, more human way of life is disappearing, as radio gives way to television and as the traditional ways of the North are threatened by the pipeline and, more generally, by the South. Where are the shades of grey in the conflict between old ways and “progress”? Does the novel give you a sense of where the novelist stands on this?
  13. John Hornby’s biographer, George Whalley, tells Gwen that both he and his subject approach life “‘crabwise,’ meaning sideways and backwards rather than head-on.” Harry likes this idea of “a wandering route notable for its ‘digressions and divagations’…. A route of the soul, perhaps.” Does “crabwise,” in the sense Hay is using the term, suggest something of the structure chosen for Late Nights on Air? In what way does this approach reflect the characters’ yearnings and the way they are able to express themselves? Is this true of human beings in general?
  14. “Gwen found herself thinking about the vulnerable rivers and birds and plants and animals and old ways of life.” She learns, for example, that an oil spill, in turning the ice black, ruins its reflective power so that it absorbs light and melts, thus changing the environment. At one of its deepest levels, this is a book about ecology, about the fragile interdependence of people, animals and their environment. Discuss the ways this plays out in Late Nights on Air.
  15. In addition to its rewards, the canoe trip taken by Harry, Eleanor, Gwen, and Ralph has its share of ordeals, including Harry and Eleanor getting lost, Gwen’s encounter with a bear, and Ralph’s fate. Discuss the various ways in which the characters are de-stabilized and reoriented in the course of the trip, and how the trip impacts upon their lives later.
  16. Dido is so different in her relationship with Harry than she is with Eddy. What is it about the two men — and what is it about Dido — that cause such different responses?
  17. This is a book where couples are often frustrated and love is not reciprocated or is cut off too soon — Harry and Dido, Dido and Eddy (a relationship that endures but on unknown terms), Eleanor and Ralph. Perhaps unexpectedly, an unconventional couple comes together at the end of the book. Were you surprised? Are there hints throughout the book? Does it work for you?
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Reader’s Guide for Small Change

Discussion Questions for Small Change

  1. After reading Small Change, discuss the role that the epigraphs from Noel Coward and Toni Morrison play in acting as road maps through the terrain that Small Change explores. You might want to discuss, for example, whether the epigraph from Noel Coward is or is not an adequate description of Beth. The quote from Toni Morrison seems to suggest that a degree of play-acting is necessary to create the right kind of impression in conducting our relationships. Discuss the search for a balance between honesty and self-protection in the friendships portrayed in the book.
  2. Look at the stories that focus on Beth’s intense friendship with Maureen, including “The Friend” and “Cézanne in a Soft Hat,” and compare them with stories that chronicle other friendships – with Carol in “The Fight,” Leonard in “Sayonara,” and Leah in “Purge Me with Hyssop” – and compare the differences in Beth’s connections with each of these characters. What does Beth expect from friendship? How aware is she of her own failings as a friend?
  3. Beth’s friendship with Maureen is the most fully described of her adult friendships, but her attitudes to friendship grow out of her own childhood experiences. Compare the Maureen stories with Beth’s recounting of her daughter’s difficult friendship with Joyce in “Hand Games.”
  4. One of Beth’s issues with Maureen is her passivity – Maureen, for example, stays with her painter husband, Danny, even after he is clearly unfaithful to her and, even more disturbing, risks her own life by sleeping with him after she suspects he is HIV-positive. What does Beth see in herself that makes her react so strongly to Maureen’s passivity? What does she learn about passivity? And about herself?
  5. Hay’s fictions have a very visual feel to them and she has commented in interviews that she’s a great admirer of the Canadian painter David Milne. In “Cézanne and the Soft Hat,” she examines the landscapes of the French Post-Impressionist painter in describing the breakdown of his friendship with writer Emile Zola. Look at how Hay describes landscape in this story and discuss the connections that she makes between the detachment of the painter and the detachment of the writer.
  6. Beth is a writer who clearly is reworking episodes in her own life into her fiction. Hay said in an interview in the Ottawa Citizen that the “starting points for these stories are autobiographical, and the course they take is fictional.” Does the absence of disguise – of an obvious fictional cover – make the stories more compelling?
  7. In “Makeup,” Beth describes herself as “an emotional bag lady dragging along old friendships, old failings, old makeup and using them to keep myself warm in a shabby sort of way.” Does this gathering to herself of old sorrows make her a more or less appealing character?
  8. Small Change is structured as a series of linked stories, beginning with the Maureen stories and returning to Maureen in the end. How does the circular and overlapping structure of the book contribute to the underlying theme of friendship revisited.
  9. Beth suggests in “Cézanne in a Soft Hat” that men’s friendships with other men are less inclined to be so emotionally fraught as are friendships between women. “They don’t brood so luxuriously about friendships gone wrong.” Discuss.
  10. In the stories “January Through March” and “Several Losses,” Beth looks at the patterns that exist in her friendships and compares them to the seasons. At the end of “Several Losses,” Beth asks herself what she has learned and replies, “That I have arrived at middle distance in middle age with not necessarily fewer friends or better friends, but with an overwhelming desire for peaceful friends. And that all of this is temporary, and yet always the same.” Discuss the kind of release Beth finds in viewing her friendships and herself as part of the shifting fabric of the physical world.
  11. In “A Personal Letter” a character says, “Children don’t appreciate what we come to value so much as adults: consistency in our relationships.” Discuss the undercurrent of longing for something more fulfilling among the characters in these stories.
  12. The Malahat Review‘s Robert Finley wrote about Small Change that “Hay brings together in her fourth book the revelatory power of narrative, the analytical possibilities of the personal essay and memoir, the investigative discipline of journalism, and the sudden illumination of lyric, and as a result she seems able to pick up everything – everything said, and most of what is only whispered in a gesture or a look between friends.” Discuss how you see Hay using different literary genres to explore the concept of friendship.
  13. Compare Hay’s idea of friendship with that of other writers. You might want to look at Alice Munro’s short story collection Friend of My Youth, for example.
  14. Discuss the style of Hay’s writing. It has been described as both poetic and economical in its attention to the details of emotion and landscape. Is it part of a writer’s job to find words for things that are difficult to talk about?
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Reading Guide for Alone in the Classroom

Discussion Questions for Alone in the Classroom

  1. Most of the main characters in Alone in the Classroom are teachers, from Connie Flood and Syd Goodwin, who are gifted teachers, to Anne Flood, who doubts her teaching skills, to Parley Burns, a magnetic but troubling presence in the classroom. They frequently ruminate about education, as when the young Connie asks, “What if education is the catastrophe?” or when Syd, thinking about the rise of Hitler, says, “I used to think education helped.” Syd also points to the “real difference” between education and schooling. Discuss the ways in which education and the experience of school inform the plot and the ideas in the novel.
  2. Fire is an important symbol in the novel. Susan Graves dies in a fire. Parley Burns (whose last name also suggests fire) re-writes that story into a play in which a character who resembles Susan’s brother Michael sets fire to the school and a nearby house. Connie wonders whether there was a deeper truth behind that idea, perhaps about Michael’s destructive or seductive power. Michael shows Anne’s children how to light a fire, so that it never runs away with itself. Sexual attraction, often described in terms of fire, is something else that can run away with itself, and this happens more than once in the novel. Talk about the different kinds of fires – their dangers and attractions – in Alone in the Classroom.
  3. Michael Graves refers to schoolchildren as “Brave and trusting … poor little suckers.” Connie watches “all the brave children come back to school.” Why do schoolchildren require bravery? And why is the novel called Alone in the Classroom?
  4. Connie believes in reading, as she says, and will not disturb a pupil with a lesson while they are reading. Literature figures prominently in the novel, from Dickens’ novel Nicholas Nickleby to a poem by Seamus Heaney, but the predominant author is “pessimistic, erotic Thomas Hardy,” as Anne describes him, especially his novels Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. How does Elizabeth Hay use Hardy’s novels to advance her own themes? Does the connection with Hardy enrich the novel for you even if you are not familiar with Hardy’s works?
  5. Parley Burns is a fascinating character. Hay doesn’t wait for the reader to assess him: early in the novel we are told that he moved through the school “like mustard gas in subtle form. You were aware afterwards that you’d been poisoned.” Undeniably, he does some terrible things, but his complexity is also undeniable. Thinking about the lights and shadows in his nature, Anne feels that “his personality widened a little, a door in the house opened.” What exactly is Connie drawn to, against her will, in him? What are Parley’s strengths and (more obviously) his weaknesses? Do you ever feel warmth or admiration or pity for him?
  6. The sexual incompatibility of Syd Goodwin and Connie is described in terms of fruit: “She was an orchard ready to be picked and Syd could not find the fruit.” Elizabeth Hay uses fruit, especially berries, at other crucial moments in the novel. What are they, and what do they suggest? Discuss the connection these images and symbols have with the central importance of nature in the novel.
  7. There are frequent instances of cruelty and even sadism in the novel, from small examples – like the Italian painting of a man being scourged that Connie finds unforgettable or the mention of the mistreatment of children in Nicholas Nickleby – to much larger ones. Hay’s treatment of it can be unexpected. When Connie uses the strap on one of her pupils, she is horrified by the pleasure it gives her, but at the same time, it seemed “that she had gained ground. All day the children worked hard to please her.” What are some other examples of cruelty in the novel, and what does Hay seem to be saying about it?
  8. The aunt/niece relationship is an unusual one around which to build a novel. Narrated by Anne, the story centres around her aunt Connie for the first half of the book, and Anne only emerges as a leading character in the second half. At one point, Anne thinks that she is “Connie in diluted form.” How does Anne’s relationship to her aunt affect the way she feels about Michael Graves and even Parley Burns? How does it knit into other major themes in the book?
  9. Alone in the Classroom does not proceed in a straightforward way. It involves four generations, and the story is not told chronologically. Also, the plot often advances in a deliberately unemphatic way, with important information imparted almost casually, in an aside. An example is the trial of Johnny Coyle for the murder of Ethel Weir. After Johnny has been convicted and sentenced to hang, Hay lets us know that Coyle has later been acquitted almost as an afterthought, while dating a long walk Connie makes to Wakefield, Quebec. Similarly, we learn in an understated sentence that Anne “lost a husband and half lost an aunt” during her affair with Michael. Why do you think Hay chooses to tell her story in this circuitous, quiet way? How does this technique heighten the effectiveness of the storytelling?
  10. Connie Flood has charisma, in the sense that it’s hard to define exactly what makes her appealing. As Anne describes her aunt’s effect on her own father, “Her methods were invisible. She didn’t make overt efforts to question him or include him in conversation, but he said more in an hour with her than in a month with anyone else.” Connie is both glamorous and the embodiment of many of the important values in the book. Some of this is suggested by her name, Constance. To what is she constant or faithful (and to what or whom is she not?) What are the ways and moments in which Hay communicates Connie’s attractiveness?
  11. Parley believes that after his grandmother hanged herself, his sister was born with a strangle mark around her neck. Connie also believes that we carry the past forward into future generations. Anne rejects her aunt’s idea that her own birthmarks indicated that Susan Graves, who died in a fire, had come back as Anne. But the novel is shot through with examples of the ways in which past generations influence later ones. Discuss these intersections between past and present.
  12. The epigraph of the novel is from the poet Theodore Roethke:?”Nothing would give up life:?Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.”?How do these lines comment on or connect with the main themes of Alone in the Classroom?
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Audio: A reading from His Whole Life

Elizabeth Hay reads Chapter 1 from His Whole Life.

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December

A warm house. A beautiful tree in the corner drinking water like a thirsty dog. Our children home.

My favourite parts of Christmas are bringing the outside in and the far away close. Our son is home from England, our daughter home from Toronto.

Balsam fir, and the fragrance greets me in the hall outside the living room. I have just played Santa, creeping into my daughter’s room to leave a stocking beside the laptop glowing on her bed, and into my son’s room to leave his stocking propped on the floor next to his glowing laptop. How can they sleep with these foreign lights puncturing the darkness? And I step backwards over their shed clothes, my feet on soft unknowns, wondering what sort of future exists for grown children who do not put their clothes away. Bad mother, who did not teach them.

Downstairs, I open the back door into darkness and battering winds. It’s way above zero and during the night rain was beating against our windows.

What I love best about December is the darkness. It has the quality of dark fruitcake, which reminds me of Louis Armstrong’s voice.

This is childhood talking.

I hear footsteps on our creaking floors. My son’s a moment ago. My husband’s now. It is still dark and the barometer has never been lower. A day for all the creature comforts.

That was yesterday. Today my head is a shambles. It took me ten minutes to remember ‘butternut squash.’ I want to stand outside the store that sold me a certain pan for crème caramel and bang it over the offending saleswoman’s head as she gets out of her car. This is not the pan! It never was the pan! Give me my money back!

Instead, I will go for a long slow walk into the damp winds.

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Breakfast Under the Influence

Some writers say they don’t read fiction when they’re in the middle of writing fiction, so afraid are they of unconsciously picking up the other’s voice. Not me. I read anything.

Early the other day, waiting for breakfast in a Toronto café, I opened Grace Paley’s Collected Stories. I was starving. I am always starving if I have to travel for a book event. I sleep little – wake early – lie in bed starving.

The café on Bloor (which didn’t open its doors until the criminally late hour of 7:30 a.m.) put a plate in front of me of eggs, toast, broiled tomatoes and fried potatoes, and a few minutes later I read, “There were two husbands disappointed by eggs.”

Ah, Grace, I thought, you’re wonderful. You are feeding me too. One of the husbands pushed the eggs away, “pain and disgust his escutcheon,” she writes. And in five words, there was my father.

I think of him all the time and always with a trace of shame. There was the day, for instance, when he came to Toronto and I was there, working for a radio program frantically, nervously, with no thought for anything but my deadline. And here was my father interrupting my work by phoning and inviting me to have breakfast with him the next morning. Not intending to hurt him, I gave him my explicit reluctance. Then hearing his disappointment, I relented and agreed.

And we did have breakfast. Awkwardly, as was always the case. We were never comfortable in each other’s presence.

If only I had been more affectionate, how the affection would have poured back! But I had too many grievances against him. Well, I was afraid of him with a fear that never left me.

Paley’s story is “Two Short Sad Stories from a Long and Happy Life.” It’s the first of the two that’s about the disappointed husbands and it overflows with the abundance of complicated family life. There are two husbands, two sons, two fathers, an old boyfriend named Clifford, a mother and two-time wife named Faith. The story moves through visiting, playing, memory, religion, schooling, politics – talking, talking, talking – and it’s like village life in a slightly unhinged New York apartment. You long to be there, too.

So Grace, think I, bring on your influence. Let some of your writing juices flow into me.

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Waiting for the Next Stage

I remember glorious Easter weekends in my childhood when amidst the general surge of warmth and sunshine I would find the warmest spot of all and occupy it happily. The warmest spot was inside the family station wagon parked in the gravel driveway.

I see my father washing the car with bucket and hose and a soft cloth while I sit behind the wheel, as if on a lily pad. I work the steering wheel and all the switches and buttons, imagining driving to Toronto by myself, driving to nameless cities full of night lights and television antennas and excitement. Meanwhile, the sun beats in through the windshield and I am warm as toast.

At the age of four I wanted a red convertible. At ten, any old car that I could drive myself. Now, of course, I hate cars and highways, and am not much of a driver at all.

It’s the end of April and rain has been coming down all day. I am waiting to hear from my editor. I am finding the wait as long as the rain. In this interval of waiting I have painted my study Rideau blue, a darker blue than the previous blue, because summer is coming and I want to feel that I’m where I want to be, which is in the shade.

On April 19 of this cold, wet, flooding spring, we put our canoe into the Rideau River a few blocks away and paddled over flooded pathways and riverbanks and around behind an island that was thick with red-winged blackbirds. The current took us a long way downstream and muscle brought us back. It was a perfect day, swollen with sunshine and wide river waters.

Afterwards, we sat on the back porch and drank beer and drank in the sunshine, thinking of my mother and father who used to love to sit in the same spot, taking the sunshine into their old bones. For the two of them, having come to the end of the road, the porch was their lily pad.

“I’m in love with your garden,” my mother would say. “I’m very much in love with this garden.” It took her back to her father’s garden in Renfrew and his early, wrenching death, while her own death refused to come.

And then finally it came on a beautiful April day two years ago. April 19.

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Dear November

I’ve been trying to write a play. I’ve also been trying to find a better title for the novel I’ve nearly finished.

The play has to have a big role for my daughter the struggling actor. That would be the main reason for writing it. But I’ve been talking about writing her a play for six years. Rough notes abound but nothing has come of them. I talk and do not produce.

On the phone with her yesterday, Sochi offered a great title for the new novel. Sochi Fried Goes to Hollywood, she said. Yes, I crowed. Sochi Fried Goes to Hollywood and Her Mother Wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. That’s not too long for a book title.

One solution for my play-impasse would be to adapt one of my stories for the stage. Framing it would be key. Finding a theatrical framework in which to set the story and then getting what a playwright friend called ‘the hydraulics’ right.

When I think of dramatic hydraulics I think of Eugene Onegin, the emotional reversal in Pushkin’s novel-in-verse. It’s fresh in my mind from having seen the encore broadcast of the opera last Saturday beamed from the Met in New York. In the first act Tatiana sends a love letter to Onegin, who rejects her. In the last act he is the one sending love letters to Tatiana and he is the one rejected. A great opera.

This morning I look out the window at late November. Smashed pumpkins in the garden next door, a trace of sleet on the leafy ground. Inside, we are warm. The new furnace arrived a week ago and no longer are we huddled next to the wood stove in the living room. The house has opened its arms to us again. We can relax. We can work again.

At my desk I leaf through my old notes thinking about the hydraulics of a play, wondering how to make it happen.

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Guardian Review

A Guardian Review of Alone in the Classroom appeared October 12, 2013. “Hay’s risky strategy pays off in spades as her slow-burning story arc reaches its zenith and Connie’s past links up with Anne’s present to become a highly nuanced history of a whole family.”

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