A STUDENT OF WEATHER by Elizabeth Hay
“He nudged his chair close and studied the warm little hand. He smelled of sweat, peppermint, tobacco, old coffee. Despite his accent he wasn’t hard to understand – he talked so slowly and so carefully. She would have a long life, he said. She would have one child…Â You have special talents, he told her. People don’t realize.”Â
Review by Friederike Knabe Â DEC 15, 2011)
… stated the “tiny old man,” one of the many transient visitors to the Hardy farm in the small village of Willow Bend while reading eight-year-old Norma Joyce’s palm.
Canadian author, Elizabeth Hay, centers her superb, enchanting and deeply moving novel around Norma Joyce and sister Lucinda, her senior by nine years. Set against the beautifully evoked natural environments of Saskatchewan and Ontario, and spanning over more than thirty years, the author explores in sometimes subtle, sometimes defter, ways the sisters’ dissimilar characters. One is an “ugly duckling,” the other a beauty; one is rebellious and lazy, the other kind, efficient and unassuming… In a way, their characters mirror what are also suggested to be traditional features of inhabitants living with and in these two contrasting landscapes: on the one hand the farmers in Saskatchewan, patient and often fatalistic in their exposure to the vagaries of the weather and the hopes and destructions that those can bring, on the other the Ontarians, assumed to have a much easier life and, to top it off: they grow apples… A rare delicacy for the farmers out west. Hay wonderfully integrates the theme of the apple – the symbol of seduction as well as health!
Hay’s novel is as much an engaging portrait of the quirky Norma Joyce as it is a delicately woven family drama, beginning in the harsh “dustbowl” years of the 1930s. Still, Hay gives us much more than that: her exquisite writing shines when she paints in richly modulated prose, rather than with the brush, a deeply felt love poem to nature: its constantly varying beauty in response to a weather that seem to toy with it as in a never-ending dance.
While Lucinda runs the household on the farm with efficiency and dedication under the admiring eye of their widowed father, Norma Joyce succeeds in daily disappearing acts to avoid taking her place as a dutiful daughter. Into their routine lives enters, one day, and seemingly from nowhere, Maurice Dove, attractive, knowledgeable and entertaining, a student of weather patterns, Prairie grasses and much more… Ontario meets Saskatchewan with unforeseeable consequences…
Norma Joyce has always been a child of nature through and through: “She had her own memory of grasses. Five years old and lying on her back in the long grass behind the barn, the June sun beating down from a cloudless sky until warmth of another kind pulsed through her in waves […] she remembers every name of every plant.” Now, at eight, she has found in Maurice the ideal teacher and she turns into the “perfect student.” Her small hand reaches out to claim him… He, while enchanted with Lucinda, had been “taken aback by [Norma Joyce’s] ugliness, a word he modified to homeliness the next morning […] then at breakfast he thought her merely strange, and now, interesting.”
Hay is too fine and imaginative a writer to let the story develop predictably. There will be many twists and turns with the family moving to Ottawa and Norma Joyce even further away to New York. At every turn, Hay builds an environment in which human beings interact with the natural surroundings they are placed into. Her description of the Ottawa neighbourhood is intimate and real; New York has its own attractions and disappointments. As Norma Joyce grows up, she feels forced into a difficult journey, that, she later realizes has been an essential phase for her to gain confidence in herself and to discover “her special talents” as the old man had predicted: “Her life would stop, then it would start again…”.
As a reader, I was totally engaged with Hay’s exploration of Norma Joyce’s maturing that teaches her, among many other lessons, to let go while allowing herself to also accept new experiences into her life. Her life-long connection to the prairies sustains her at a deep level, her community in Ottawa helps her to find new avenues to her inner soul. At a different level, Hay plays with references to Thomas Hardy, to established naturalists to underline the importance of landscape and our traditional connection to it. She evokes images that remind us of fairy tales, such as the drop of bright red blood on the white pillow or Norma’s ability to pre-sense events happening many miles away. For me they form part of a richly created background to what is a very authentic and meaningful account of one young woman’s road to herself, an extraordinary achievement for a first novel. A Student of Weather collected several awards and, deservedly, was a finalist for the prestigious Canadian Giller Prize in 2000.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 31 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Counterpoint (January 2, 2002)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||Not Yet|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Elizabeth Hay|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read our review of:|
- Crossing the Snow Line: Stories (1989)
- Small Change: Stories (1997)
- A Student of Weather (2000; 2001 in the US)
- Garbo Laughs (2003)
- Late Nights on Air (2007; 2008 in the US)
- Alone in the Classroom (2011 in Canada)