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.