There is no more compelling story in literature than the abduction of a child. In "What Saffi Knows," the first story in her new collection, Carol Windley makes use of this subject -- and the ensuing search and the inevitable revelation of the evil that lies beneath the banalities of ordinary life -- to mesmerizing effect.
If there is one common theme in all of the stories in Home Schooling, it is the separation of children from parents. Parents die; they run off with lovers, they neglect their children for foolish dreams. In "What Saffi Knows," Saffi's father is a drunk who disappears for days on end. Her mother has had to go out to work and has left Saffi in the care of her aunt. In the midst's of the townspeople's frantic search for the missing boy, Saffi wonders, "Shouldn't someone have been looking out for her?"
Most of Windley's stories are set amid the lush landscapes and gorgeous luminescence of the Pacific Northwest and of Vancouver Island, where Windley, a runner-up for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada's most prestigious literary award, was born. Her characters are Chekhovian idealists and dreamers, refugees from the counterculture or from broken homes, actual and psychological orphans trying to reform themselves into new kinds of families.
Often in these new families, when a parent abdicates responsibility for a child, it is the father's new girlfriend or wife who tries to take on the care of the troubled little being left behind. In "Children's Games," Marisa, whose mother died when she was very young, tries to be a mother to Logan, her boyfriend Ben's son, whose own mother has run off with her lover. In "The Joy of Life," the main character, Alex, becomes a surrogate mother to Loren, the daughter of her best friend, Désirée, while Désirée pursues her dream of becoming a painter and conducts an adulterous affair with a poet she meets at an art colony. When Désirée dies, Alex marries the husband and raises Loren.
And so families form and reform. In "Family in Black," a woman, Sherry, leaves her carpenter husband, Jonah, and her daughter, Nadia, to marry Nolan, a rich logger who is stripping the local forests and who stands for everything the idealistic Jonah loathes. At first, Nadia hates her new stepfather, finding him ugly and overbearing. But Nolan, tough and successful, was himself orphaned as an infant. He tells Nadia a story about how once he was stranded in the wilderness in a snowstorm after his truck broke down. He thought he might die. But suddenly, his parents appeared to him in a vision. "His heart was full of love for them," Windley writes. "This, he thought, was what he had always dreamed of: to be even for one moment with his parents." Nolan's truck started up again and he was saved.
Slowly, Nadia comes to accept Nolan. A new family is created from the disparate fragments of the old one -- Nadia, her mother, stepfather, his daughter and adult sons, his ex-wife, plus Nadia's father, Jonah, and Jonah's new girlfriend, and finally the ghosts of Nolan's two other, dead wives. "A broken, patchily reassembled family," thinks Nadia, "in the early years of a century no one had yet learned to trust or had any reason to trust."
Like her fellow Canadian writer, Alice Munro, whose influence is clearly felt here, Windley in this book expands the traditional short story form and moves easily back and forth between great swaths of time. This is the darkest of her books to date (she is the author also of another story collection, Visible Light, and of a novel, Breathing under Water). One story in Home Schooling, "Sand and Frost," even encompasses a mass murder; the main character's great-grandfather, a minister, shot his family to death and then killed himself, sparing one of his daughters. Lydia, that daughter's descendant, is haunted by her family's dreadful past. She lives out her life in an atmosphere of suppressed grief and terror, stalking her English professor, with whom she imagines a bond because of a dark sorrow in his own past.
Yet Windley's population of wounded souls and survivors is never one-sided in character. In the title story, the father, Harold, is an idealist, a slightly lunatic hippie-type who runs an alternative boarding school, Miramonte, on a remote island. When a student drowns in a marsh on the property, the authorities close the school. As a condition of reopening it, a government inspector rules that Harold must put up a fence around the marsh. He refuses. "Harold said a chain link fence would be an atrocity," Windley writes. "It would make Miramonte look like any institution, any school. He wanted the children to feel as if they were at home, not in a jail."
The family is frozen by Harold's stubborn idealism, his vague, unfocused notions about education and the freedom of children. They are prisoners of his selfishness, left in misery in their wintry abode.
But in the end, Harold undergoes an unsuspected transformation. He sees the right way and slowly relents. He hires people to put up the fence, even begins to paint the schoolhouse. "Of course, it was just a beginning," Windley writes. "In some ways the school remained a dream, Harold said. He knew that. It was makeshift, provisional, like one of those airy constructs that formed in cumulonimbus clouds just before a thunderstorm: a castle, a sailing ship, an entire continent, and then a moment later there was nothing but sky."
In "The Reading Elvis," the main character, Graham, a schoolteacher, has been raised by his tough, bitter single mother. He feels she never loved him and that she never forgave his father for deserting the family. One day, Graham, (like Nolan, in "Family in Black"), is stranded in a forest after he injures his shoulder. He knows that he must just try to survive till morning.
As in the earlier story, a saving vision appears: Graham sees his mother "in the trees, her dress leaf-green, dappled with the last faint rays of evening light, her hand stretched forth, saying: 'Why are you always afraid, Graham? What is there to fear?' "
Some writers famously end their short stories by merely slicing off the final paragraph, leaving the reader to wonder in uncertainty. Not Windley: what elevates her as a writer is her struggle to find a meaning in her characters' fates, to discover their moral essence and, sometimes, even a magical truth. --Dinitia Smith
Dinitia Smith is the author of three novels, and a former arts correspondent for The New York Times, where she wrote on literature.