Why I Love Teaching The Novel Alias Grace

Teach Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace to High School Seniors - Based on A True Story!

alias-194x300 Why I Love Teaching The Novel Alias Grace

Teach Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace to your high school students! Based on true events, this mystery will keep them engaged right to the very end!

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Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace is one of my very favorite books to use in Honors and AP Literature with seniors. 

Not only is it based on a true story, but the dual narration and included primary documents make it an engrossing mystery that the reader feels compelled to solve. 

Alias Grace Summary:

A historical fiction book based on true events, Grace Marks was sixteen when her family moved from Ireland to Canada looking for a better life. 

Grace worked as a maid, and eventually ended up working for a gentleman and his housekeeper (ahem, MISTRESS). Both are eventually brutally murdered in the home, and Grace is blamed, and ultimately tried and convicted.

Throughout the remainder of her life, Grace maintained that she had no memory of that day and whether or not she had anything to do with Thomas Kinnear’s and Nancy Montgomery’s deaths. 

Enter the beloved author Margaret Atwood, who takes this story and adds her own flair, including a second narrator, Dr. Simon Jordan. 

In Atwood’s fictional retelling of this story, Dr. Jordan has been hired by a local group who believes in Grace’s innocence, to figure out whether or not she is lying. And, if she is telling the truth, WHY can’t she remember?

Narration and Themes

One of the most striking aspects of Alias Grace is Atwood’s masterful use of unreliable narration. 

Grace’s story is told through a series of flashbacks and recollections, and as the reader pieces together the events leading up to the murder, it becomes clear that Grace’s memory is flawed and her perspective is biased. This creates a sense of tension and uncertainty that keeps the reader engaged and guessing until the very end.

In addition to its compelling plot, Alias Grace is also a deeply thought-provoking exploration of the themes of gender, power, and social norms. 

Atwood’s use of setting shows us the oppressive and restrictive society in which Grace lives, and the ways in which women are expected to conform to certain roles and expectations. 

Through Grace’s journey, the reader is invited to consider the ways in which societal expectations shape our lives and our own identities.

This post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commission, at no cost to you, if you make a purchase through a link.

Made for Television

Netflix made Alias Grace into an original miniseries that is pretty good! Watch the trailer below:

“If we were all on trial for our thoughts, we would all be hanged" (Atwood).

My Thoughts:

There are a million reasons why I love teaching this book, but mostly because I love a good psychological mystery. And this story is so intriguing because we don’t really know what actually happened. 

If I can hook my students into getting into this book (I try my best!) from the beginning, they enjoy reading it. 

Many of my more recent students have watched or even read The Handmaid’s Tale, so the name Margaret Atwood is known to them. 

Reading another of her stories appeals to them, and they come into the unit with a positive mindset. I explain to them that Margaret Atwood is a Canadian national treasure and introduce her stories, essays, and poems. 

This story appeals to my history buffs as well. The primary sources that Atwood includes are fascinating windows into 19th century penitentiaries (the famed Kingston Penitentiary, for example) and institutions for women, and the limitations of psychology and forensics. 

This also could lead to an introduction or further study into primary documents and online databases. It could also lead into a true crime research unit (one of my FAVORITE all time projects!). 

It is also clear that the true Grace Marks story was a notoriously polarizing case in its time. Community members were strongly convinced of her innocence…or guilt. 

As teachers, we see that is an angle that (unfortunately) our students know all too well and we can use to establish engagement in the story.

There are other relatable social issues here as well: the difficulties of immigrants to succeed in a new country, women’s issues in a patriarchal society, and the treatment and rehabilitation of prisoners.

For Advanced Placement AP Literature Students

In the AP Literature curriculum, there is not always time to spare for research, so I spend most of my precious class time on literary analysis. 

Atwood’s dual narrators give an interesting perspective on the case; there is so much we don’t know as readers. I also spend time on reliable vs. unreliable narrators here.

I know I keep mentioning the primary documents, but it is such an unexpected surprise. It is almost like a third narrator – we have Grace’s point of view, the fictional Dr. Jordan’s, and then the true accounts from the time give reliability here. Since we can’t trust Grace or her memories, the documents provide some realism. 

The symbolism and themes lend themselves to so many possibilities for free response question prompts. I have had many students use Alias Grace for Question 3, with excellent results. 

It is not a novel that is widely taught, which appeals to essay readers who get bored of the same old novel analysis. And since the book is so readable, the students can confidently and deeply and discuss the prompt and how it contributes to the work as a whole. 

Check out the interview below with Margaret Atwood, discussing the making of the miniseries:

In conclusion, I love this novel and so do my students. It is a readable, engaging novel that works well in my senior classroom. 

Here is an interesting article from Newsweek about Alias Grace

Purchase a copy of Alias Grace here. 

Check out the lesson planning template that I use for creating and organizing my lessons here!

More of my Novel Choices For High School Seniors

If you enjoyed this post, please check out some other options I give for whole class and independent reads:

My Independent Reading List – Part One

My Independent Reading List – Part Two

Why I Love Teaching The Novel Alias Grace

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