Home Schooling

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"Set in the temperate rain forests of coastal Vancouver Island and the vibrant cities of the Pacific Northwest, the stories in Home Schooling uncover the hidden freight and complexity of family life." In these stories, families dissolve and reform in new and startling configurations: ghosts appear, the past intrudes and overwhelms the present, familiar terrain takes on hostile aspects, and happiness often depends on unlikely alliances.
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Overview

"Set in the temperate rain forests of coastal Vancouver Island and the vibrant cities of the Pacific Northwest, the stories in Home Schooling uncover the hidden freight and complexity of family life." In these stories, families dissolve and reform in new and startling configurations: ghosts appear, the past intrudes and overwhelms the present, familiar terrain takes on hostile aspects, and happiness often depends on unlikely alliances.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Peopled by a handful of vulnerable yet resilient creative types, among them poets, musicians, teachers and artists, Canadian author Windley's accomplished story collection focuses on the domestic scene, examining how family, lovers and neighbors leave their indelible marks. Mostly centered on or near Vancouver Island, Windley's cagey moments of conflict deftly illuminate her narrators' capacity for both pettiness and grace. In "The Joy of Life," Alex finds herself living in the shadow of her best friend Dsire's idyllic life, but chances picking up the pieces when Dsire begins drifting from her husband and child. "Felt Skies" features a woman looking back on her connections with her strict mother and with her first adult lover, a much older man. Marisa of "Children's Games" moves into her lover's house and struggles to relate to his disagreeable, unpredictable son. Despite an abundance of similarly middle-class, introverted female characters, Windley keeps readers' attention with a fast pace and an eye for fresh details that make her efficient, achingly human dramas absorbing and sympathetic. (Feb.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Set against the idyllic backdrop of Vancouver Island and the bustling cityscape of Seattle, these eight short stories from Canadian author Windley (Breathing Under Water) will delight the reader with their understated prose. Whether it's the burden of a childhood secret, family crisis, romantic entanglement, or immortality and death, Windley spares us the exaggerated emotions those situations often provoke and unhurriedly disentangles the characters' hidden guilt, fears, and resentment. The result is a thoughtful analysis of the process of living and the need to make choices even when one sometimes suffers because of them. Her narrative, usually fragmental, often shifting in time, and with references to fairy tales, nursery rhymes, poetry, novels and films, adds a childlike yet intellectual dimension to the stories. Occasional quotes from philosophers such as Camus and Nietzsche stimulate deeper exploration into the characters' psyches. The stories in this anthology will remind one of an Atom Egoyan screenplay that switches between the past and the present while philosophically contemplating the issues of existence and human relationships. Reading Windley can be a mesmerizing experience; recommended for public and academic libraries.
—Victor Or

Kirkus Reviews
Eight elegant short stories by Canadian novelist Windley (Breathing Underwater, 1998, etc.) plumb the themes of loss, memory and the desire to belong. Disappointment is the norm for the clear-eyed, quietly intelligent protagonists. In "Home Schooling," 17-year-old Annabel lives with her family in a desolate abandoned boarding school on a remote Canadian island; her father had been headmaster until a student's accidental drowning led to the school's closing. Annabel is sleeping with a college student she's identified as her "likeliest means of rescue," but then she learns that he's in love with her younger sister. "Children's Games" chronicles the discomfort of a restless young woman who moves into the home of her boyfriend, a single dad, and finds it still filled with the belongings of his ex-wife. In "Felt Skies," a fledgling copywriter who grew up without a father gets involved with a hard-drinking, much older journalist, to the chagrin of her loving mother. "The Joy of Life" follows Alex as she accompanies her glamorous best friend Desiree to an artist's retreat in Wales. She winds up babysitting Desiree's young daughter Loren while mom carries on with a local poet, a fraught situation further complicated by the fact that Alex secretly covets her friend's husband back at home. Alex isn't the only character who leaves most of her feelings unaddressed. In the haunting opening piece, "What Saffi Knows," the eponymous heroine recalls her childhood some 40 years earlier, when she may have been the sole witness to an unspeakable act she could not recognize at the time as a crime. With nary a false or clumsy sentence, Windley demonstrates an effortless understanding of complex human naturethat invites obvious comparisons to her gifted compatriot Alice Munro. This slim volume gives every indication that they are warranted. Beautifully crafted and devoid of sentimentality. Agent: Marc Cote/Cormorant Books
The Barnes & Noble Review
A little boy is missing. A frantic search begins. A little girl knows where he is. She has spotted him through a window in her creepy neighbor's basement, forlorn and crouched like a bird on an old table. But she is terrified and doesn't know how to tell anyone what she has seen.

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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781896951911
  • Publisher: Cormorant Books
  • Publication date: 10/28/2006
  • Pages: 300

Table of Contents

What Saffi Knows 1

Home Schooling 21

Family in Black 51

Sand and Frost 83

Felt Skies 109

Children's Games 133

The Joy of Life 161

The Reading Elvis 191

Acknowledgements 219

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