A Student of Weather by Elizabeth Hay

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A Student of Weather by Elizabeth Hay

Counterpoint, Washington D.C., 2001

I am so glad I joined The Canadian Book Challenge.  Otherwise I might never have discovered Elizabeth Hay.

A Student of Weather is the story of two sisters growing up on the plains of Canada during  the Dust Bowl years. Sisters Norma Joyce and Lucinda are opposites, hot and cold, night and day, mild and fierce.  When Maurice Dove, a student from Ottawa,  visits their farm to study the weather his presence instigates a betrayal that has repercussions for both their lives.

“Norma Joyce?  Here. Make a hem.”

There they are, the two of them, seated in the kitchen in this quiet time before he arrives.  Beautiful, saintly Lucinda interrupting and believing she has the right to interrupt because all she sees is a tiny book in the hands of a tiny, out-of-proportion child whose forehead puts Elizabeth the First to shame, whose earlobes could double as pillows , whose baggy eyes could sleep an army.  All she sees is a child who never helps.

“I hate sewing,” comes the plain, passionate answer, not calculated to offend, maybe, but offensive.

“Don’t say hate on Sunday,” and Lucinda offers her a threaded needle.

“Oh Norma,” softly, “for pity’s sake,” and she puts down her sock again.  Both sisters watch the fat drop of blood spread across the poor old sheet.  It forms a little red bird on a white background.

Hay’s writing is spare and poetic, an elegy to past mistakes.  She is well aware of how circumstances change human behavior in unexpected ways.  In the scarcity of the Dust Bowl years Lucinda is virtuous and hates waste, Norma Joyce is self-centered and amoral.  Lucinda meets the needs and expectations of those around her, Norma Joyce has no real thought of others, as if they didn’t exist.  She is not very likable and yet I grew to like and care about her.

Hay’s way of  linking of the weather, the land, and  the people is wonderful. It is the kind of writing I love. Her ability to portray how people are together is something I find a bit astonishing and beautiful.  I felt as if I were sitting in the room with them, invisible.

This has been going on forever, he says, the rising and falling of warmth and cold, and not just day to day but over time.  Hot and cold alternate throughout history too.  Nine hundred years ago grapes grew all over England it was so warm, then the weather turned, and by the late Middle Ages the vineyards in England were gone and the Little Ice Age had begun – the time of the great frosts when the rivers of Europe froze over, when people walked across the frozen Baltic, and Eskimos came so far south that at least one of them kayaked up the River Don near Aberdeen.  Since then, it’s been warming up again.

It was restful, the passage of this sort of time.  Her eyes, she realized, were tired.  They hurt.  Those were the days, in that dust-driven part of the world, when people were always resting their eyes, rinsing them, dabbing at them with handkerchiefs.  Eyes were so dry they streamed, which was an interesting contradiction.  What about that, Maurice?  It’s curious but true, he said, and in the same way, something extremely cold burns your skin.

I could go on, each block of words a lovely image, almost painterly,  and Hay has an interesting way of moving about in time that never feels intrusive.  A Student of Weather was  Hay’s first novel, published after two books of short stories and several books of non-fiction.  It was nominated for the Giller Prize in 2000.  Hay won the Giller in 2007  for her novel Late Nights on Air.

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18 Comments

Filed under CanadianBookChallenge3, Review

18 responses to “A Student of Weather by Elizabeth Hay

  1. Wow! You really make this book sound wonderful. In reading your review, I was strongly reminded of the book Crow Lake by Mary Lawson (which I read and reviewed earlier this year), who also happens to be a Canadian. That being said, I’m not sure I would have picked this one up on my own, so I’m glad you gave it some face time!

    • Steph – I readCrow Lake a couple of years ago, before I started my blog. I think I like A Student of Weather even more than Lawson’s book. I’m glad I discover Elizabeth Hay.

  2. It does sound wonderful. And how wonderful is it when you read something like this AND it is a debut novel? It makes me so proud of these people, who obviously have a gift.

  3. I’ve read Crow Lake, too…I loved the writing. I always seem to have good luck with Canadian authors. One of these days I should join the Canadian Book Challenge.

  4. reviewsbylola

    I’ve never read anything by Elizabeth Hay but this looks like a good book.

  5. Thanks for this beautiful review, Gavin. It sounds like a perceptive and haunting book. I’m so weak on Canadian literature, so I especially appreciate the recommendation for that reason!

  6. Great review, Gavin! I’ve just added Elizabeth Hay to my reading list last week, and now I’m deciding which one I want to read (when I can find it at the library). I want to read both of hers, Late Nights On Air looks fascinating and i love the idea of being up north – I used to watch North Of 60 when it was on. Even though I hate the cold!

  7. Like Emily, I read a thoughtful review of Canadian literature like yours here, and it reminds me how little I know about the national literature of our northern neighbors. Kind of shameful when I think about it. Feel the same about Australian lit. Afraid that I sometimes fall into that oversimplified view of English language lit as American or UK based. How does this happen? I know that I am not alone either.

  8. I have this book to read, but I am not sure when I will get a chance to get to it! I read Late Nights on Air by her and really enjoyed it. :)

  9. Ali

    This sounds like a book I need to read. Not only does she sound like a talented author who crafted a meaningful story, but I didn’t even know that Canada had its own Dust Bowl years. Was it the same drought that caused the American Dust Bowl in the 30s, or a different one?

  10. Ali

    Hubby and I are geeking out on history here and answered my question: yes! I had no idea it reached that far north. Even in our encyclopedia, the map shows the Dust Bowl ending in mid-North Dakota. How odd.

    • Ali – Very cool history site! I think the portrayal of the dust bowl in US history books is just part of our nationalism. Who cares about those foreigners to the north, anyway? When will we learn that physical geography and weather patterns (think climate change) do not follow political borders?
      There is a great book by Tim Egan, The Worst Hard Time, about the dust bowl years in the US.

  11. I’m doing the Canadian Book Challenge too, and thought I’d just mosey over to see what everyone else has been reading. I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never even heard of Elizabeth Hay, which is suprising since she won the Giller. I’m glad I decided to check out your review – I’ll need to put this one on my wishlist.

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