Hay, Elizabeth: A Student of Weather
McClelland and Stewart, 2000
First published in Haliburton County Echo County Life
Review by: Kerry Riley
Take the Snow White fairy tale, that ancient story of jealousy and dangerous beauty, throw in a few saints and snakes, a little turbulence, and some of life’s own elemental urge, shake it up, toss it in the air and let the fragments settle as they will, onto the parched and sear landscape that was Saskatchewan in the 1930’s, and you’ll come close to approximating the starting point for Elizabeth Hay’s astounding first novel, A Student of Weather.
The title refers simultaneously to Norma Joyce Hardy, the story’s heroine, and narrator, who, by learning from life’s inclemencies, manages to surmount them, and more literally, Maurice, the young meteorologist who is the source of many of Norma Joyce’s troubles.
The aptly named Ernest Hardy moved to Willow Bend Saskatchewan in 1919, in the hopes of creating apple orchards on the prairie. A competent man, he was nevertheless undone by the vagaries of the weather and the stock market, and the untimely deaths of both his wife, and Norma Joyce’s twin brother (for which he secretly blames the surviving twin). He has retreated from life into a cloud of stubborn, grumpy bitterness, dragging his two remaining daughters, Lucinda (the fair, good and easy favourite) and eight-year-old Norma Joyce (small, dark, odd, neglected and rebellious) with him.
Maurice blows into this emotional tinderbox on the heels of a tremendous blizzard one fateful day in the prairie winter of 1938, both he and the precipitation rare visitors in the desert of depression-era Saskatchewan, and the equally dry existence of the surviving Hardy family. His youth and vitality bring a splash of colour to the lives of the two sisters, and the bright red coin of frostbite on his white cheek (which the child Norma Joyce, boldly reaches out to touch) just like the spot of crimson blood on the white snow of the fairy tale, awakens desires and consequences that will reverberate through their lives for years to come. One hardly needs the fact that he’s come to the West from Ontario, bearing an apple, to know that he’s going to be trouble.
Fashioning their understanding of life from their own circumstances and parsimonious emotional landscape, the children have come to think of fabled Ontario – a land of extravagant green abundance, of apples, of water (and home of wealthy and generous Uncle Dennis who sends gifts) as a sort of Eden, psychologically as well as literally, a place where life (inner and outer) in its broadest sense, can flourish. Little wonder Maurice, then, is so careless of feelings, splashing his gregarious Ontario charm around like water, heedless of the inflated significance it might have in these parched surroundings. Careless enough, in fact, to write a letter to Lucinda, dated February 14, 1939 which falls, nefariously, into the hands of Norma Joyce. The date, Hay notes, was “sufficient in itself to keep an isolated prairie mind occupied for months.”
It seems natural that Lucinda, the fair and good sister, will win the attentions of Maurice, and thus a chance at life, but her passivity is her undoing. With the death of her mother, life stopped giving Norma Joyce what she needed, so she has become adept at taking it. Norma Joyce the bold, then, grabs life right out from under her sister’s nose, but in the process, learns that boldness is no guarantee of happiness, and that one’s needs can be costly.
Hay writes with admirable perceptiveness, particularly when recreating the inner life of a precocious child who stubbornly refuses not to flourish. She gives us a strong, clear story line, transparent and utterly believable, of Norma Joyce and her struggle to come to terms with her family, her mistakes and her lot in life, but supported by a lush underpinning of overlapping metaphors, complex associations, allusions, echoes and references, which operate on innumerable levels, and give the novel its wonderful depth.
The Snow White fairy tale, that archetypal meditation on beauty, narcissism, jealousy and revenge, is a dominant thread in the story, but its ideas are stretched and warped to intermingle with, and illuminate, our great Canadian divide – the unrequited love affair between the east and west, “Saskatchewan so bitter, tenacious and aware. Ontario so careless and immune.”
Colour, particularly red, particularly compared with the desert palette of the prairie, keeps life’s potential (for pain and ecstasy) always in the reader’s mind, and the contrasting dangers of actively engaging, or passively resisting, life. And weather – that agent of change and turmoil, of imbalance and balance, both emotional and atmospheric, to which Norma Joyce is particularly sensitive, is ever present. Maurice is associated with apples, and later in life, is found working in the Eden-like surroundings of botanical gardens, and offers a spirited defense of snakes, to Norma Joyce, who hates them. One could go on.
Not an easy thing, to juggle this number of complex, interconnected symbols and metaphors, without ever pushing a comparison past its usefulness, forcing a character to conform to the theory, or allowing the explanatory accuracy to weaken. Ms. Hay’s use of symbol and metaphor fits so naturally into her narrative, seems so right and necessary, so effortlessly a result of her character’s personalities, and their environment, that, like the Easter egg so well hidden it’s not discovered until July, there’s always one more surprise to be found, no matter how thoroughly one combs the text.