After arriving in Las Vegas last week for a work trip, I opened up my hotel room to my co-workers. I stayed in one of three social suites where we hung out at night to talk, snack, drink, and play Boggle. After I settled in, a couple other early arrivals stopped by to say hi and do some support tickets before the real work of the meetup was to begin. My friend and co-worker, Sandy McFadden, dropped a book on the round end table for me.
“I think you’ll like that,” he said. He pointed to the testimonials on the back of the book, one of which reads, “[She has an] evocative grace that brings to mind Annie Proulx.”
I smiled and stroked the book cover. Sandy, who lives in Nova Scotia, knows and shares my love for Proulx’s The Shipping News (he has also committed to letting us come visit him and his family some time in the coming years to see the Bay of Fundy. If you’re reading this, Sandy, I’m holding you to that promise!).
I was in the middle of a Jane Austen binge on the Vegas trip. I had read Persuasion a couple of weeks earlier, then Pride and Prejudice (SO GOOD), and I was in the middle of Sense and Sensibility when Sandy gave me the Saskatchewan and Ottawa Valley-set Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay. It sat, waiting, on my table in the hotel, for a whole week before getting packed in my suitcase to take home with me. I finished Austen on the flight home, and started Hay’s novel the first day I was back.
Within two pages I knew it would be my kind of book, with vivid descriptions of berries, of kettles to hold them, of hot kitchens to can them, of their sensuous ripening, and of their role in the story to come.
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… 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.
Hay’s writing makes me fall in love with language in a way I haven’t felt in quite a while. With sentences that unfold into unanticipated endings, with unusual phrases, she manages to capture secreted-away emotions I’d never be able to capture in words.
They heard a bird deep in the woods, a blue jay’s stabbing cry, and he startled her by saying that almost every day he heard or saw something so beautiful it was like tapping into all the sorrows of the world.
Why sorrow? Sorrow was not what I expected. But I felt the truth of it. It is more true than almost any other ending to that sentence. I don’t know why. Perhaps because beauty is ephemeral. Perhaps because the beauty of the earth, the beauty that is here without us needing to do anything, goes unappreciated, even destroyed. Perhaps because beauty makes us feel. Perhaps because there must always be balance, and beauty can’t only bring joy.
But it was this passage that really struck me, and secured my loyalty to Elizabeth Hay:
That week there were the kind of dark, intense, festering skies that reminded her of a full range of blues in a child’s box of colours. She felt a great urge to see the water.
After recently writing about the midnight blue crayon in my childhood Crayola boxes, I was both jealous of and grateful for her command of language. These aren’t complicated words. But the leap from the description of the sky to the craving it creates is graceful, and impressive. I know exactly the feeling Hay describes, the appetite the blues awake. She felt a great urge to see the water. I love everything about those two sentences, and the feeling they evoke, and the truth they capture.
Thank you Elizabeth Hay, and thank you Sandy.
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…