Home Schooling: Stories by Carol Windley
Events violent and unhinged frequently hover at the edge of many of Carol Windley’s stories in her elegant new collection, Home Schooling. Characters frequently find themselves preoccupied by the darker things in life -- people leaving, people dying, betrayals, and secrets. In one story, a woman struggles to come to grips with the shameful, “unspeakable” truth that her great-grandfather murdered his entire family, except for her grandmother. In another, a woman leaves her husband in order to take up with a wealthy logger, two of whose previous wives died under mysterious circumstances. And, in the opening story, “What Saffi Knows,” the “knows” turns out to be a secret that the narrator kept as a child with tragic consequences. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that the characters peopling Windley’s tales are only too aware of the volatility of life; and yet, at the center of their personal stories is resiliency. “Adapt or die,” says one character to his daughter in the wake of her mother leaving them to fend for themselves.
The most memorable story in the collection (though admittedly it’s hard to single out a “best”) is the one that gives the book its name. The piece opens with the drowning of a gifted ten-year-old boy, Randal, in a marsh on an island near Vancouver Island. Randal had been attending a small private boarding school run by an eccentric educator named Harold and his musician wife, Nori, and the scandal of his accidental death results in both the closing of the school and the family’s financial ruin. But these are the practical consequences of Randal’s death; driving “Home Schooling” is the manner in which Randal haunts Harold, Nori, and their two teenage daughters, untethering them from certainty and security. At one point, Harold stands “scanning the sky as if for signs of inclement weather, ominous clouds, a supplementary inrush of bad luck.” When, at another point, the eldest daughter, Annabel, sneaks out at night to meet her boyfriend and he’s late in meeting her, her thoughts quickly turn morbid: “What if, in the dark, Patrick had ridden his ten-speed off the road? What if he’d hit his head on a rock? Or what if he was rowing the skiff around the point and it had capsized?” Windley further draws out the potential for events to spiral out of control in a later scene in which Nori honors Randal’s spirit by lighting a small fire that quickly turns into several small fires and threatens to burn down the house.
Although fear and the unpredictable threaten to engulf Harold, Annabel, and Nori, they still manage to clutch at some thread of beauty with which to string themselves along in the wake of their misfortune. Harold looks for storms, his family “teetering on the absolute edge of disaster,” and yet, at the same time, “the world was as beautiful as ever, the trees like spires, a few white clouds like silk sails racing across the sun.” Similarly, Annabel finds comfort in “the lovely unstoppable beat” of Patrick’s heart when he does arrive only moments after her panic attack. And Nori, having extinguished her out-of-control fire, finds the scent of the smoke “bitter, yet strangely bracing.” Here lies the tension that makes not only this story but many of Windley’s stories so captivating: she calls attention to the tenuous, fragile nature of existence, and yet also casts into relief the beauty of people’s efforts to stave off the darkest of events and fears, whether through action or inaction. “Well anyway, we’ll hope for the best and see what transpires,” says Harold as he looks toward the future -- and really, this is all that anyone can do.
With her vivid prose and insightful characterizations, Windley has written an exceptional collection of stories. The only big question to ask is: Why did it take Home Schooling, originally published in Canada in 2006, three years to find its way across the border? What other Canadian fiction are we missing out on?
Home Schooling: Stories by Carol Windley
Atlantic Monthly Books