The new novel from the best-selling author of Broken for You spins the stories of a dedicated teacher, his enigmatic son, and a wartime survivor into an affecting tale of love, loss, and handwriting.
“I love Ms. Kallos’s work so much.” —Anne Lamott, best-selling author of Grace (Eventually)
“For me, it would be plenty if a novel was deeply felt, utterly absorbing, and full of wit. But in Language Arts, Stephanie Kallos goes further, throwing in a doozy of a twist that had me going back to page one to understand how she pulled off such dazzling sleight of hand. An all-around delight.” —Maria Semple, author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
Charles Marlow teaches his high school English students that language will expand their worlds. But linguistic precision cannot help him connect with his autistic son, his ex-wife, or his college-bound daughter, who has just flown the nest. He’s at the end of a road he’s traveled on autopilot for years when a series of events forces him to think back on the lifetime of decisions and indecisions that have brought him to this point. With the help of an ambitious art student, an Italian-speaking nun, and the memory of a boy in a white suit who inscribed his childhood with both solace and sorrow, Charles may finally be able to rewrite the script of his life.
From the best-selling author of Broken for You,Language Arts is an affecting tale of love, loss, and language—its powers and its perils.
“[A] beautifully written, harrowing novel . . . Her vivid descriptions create a cast of memorable characters. She also delivers a huge shocker of a plot twist, one that may send you back to the beginning of the book as you wonder how this development could be possible.” —Seattle Times
It was such a small news item — a few hundred words in the Around the Northwest section — that even a scrupulous reader like Charles might have missed it altogether if the headline hadn’t included the name of the school he’d attended from kindergarten through fourth grade, a name so charmingly archaic that it could easily figure into a work of nineteenth-century literature:
former nellie goodhue school slated for demolition and sale by school district
Up to the moment he noticed the headline, Charles had been happily settled at his favorite table at the café, wedged into a windowless corner beside a big-leafed philodendron that was in such dire need of transplantation that its roots, black and thick as cables, had begun to extrude from the potting soil; nevertheless, the plant seemed to be thriving. Situated thus, he enjoyed a camouflaged obscurity, a public solitude.
Cloud City Café was a bustling establishment within walking distance of Charles’s house. It was where he spent every Monday through Friday morning (except holidays) from six o’clock until seven fifteen — even when school wasn’t in session, as was the case on this day, a Wednesday in mid-July.
As it happened, it was also his daughter Emmy’s birthday.
He had just finished his regular breakfast — black coffee, a pair of poached eggs (one whole, one white), unsweetened oatmeal — and gotten his cup refilled. He’d been making his way through the Seattle Times at perhaps a slightly more leisurely pace than usual.
Seattle Public Schools will sell the former Nellie Goodhue School, a 3.2-acre property in North Seattle that real estate advisers estimate could fetch at least $2.75 million.
During the summer months, Charles adhered to his workday routines as much as possible, refusing to drift into the never-never land of exotic locales and amorphous time as did many of his teaching colleagues: sleeping in, socializing on weeknights at trendy downtown bistros, taking spontaneous trips to the beach or the mountains, attending midday street fairs and festivals, going to movie matinees; in short, letting themselves go completely, making it that much harder for them to get back into the swing of things come September. Charles pitied them, really. How could they reliably forget on an annual basis that the disciplines of day-to-day living, so hard won, are so easily unraveled?
Nellie Goodhue is the sixth and last of the school district’s major surplus properties to be sold.
It startled him, seeing the name of his alma mater in print after all these years — up for sale and slated for demolition?
Charles checked his watch. He imagined that, back home, Emmy would be awake by now and getting ready to go to one of her jobs: she had a part-time internship at the Gates Foundation; twenty-five hours a week, she managed the neighborhood video store where she and Charles had been renting movies since she was two; and she was a frequent volunteer at Children’s Hospital, giving swim lessons and leading games in the hospital’s therapy pool. Not surprisingly, her social life was limited (her best friend was her brother), and at her request, the birthday celebration was to be low-key, family only.
After laying the newspaper aside, Charles refolded his napkin and began consolidating the tabletop clutter — actions he habitually undertook after he’d finished reading the paper and was about to walk out the door but that today for some reason he felt impelled to expedite.
The Nellie Goodhue School was featured in a 1963 story in the Seattle Times, “Fourth-Graders Predict the Future.” In conjunction with the recent World’s Fair, the students of Eloise Braxton’s Language Arts class were asked to reflect on what they thought life would be like in the 21st century.
Perhaps if Charles had returned for fifth grade, there would have been an entire unit centered around Miss Goodhue, an innovative syllabus in which reading, writing, and social studies (and maybe even math, science, and art!) were all linked to a single remarkable historical figure, a course of study that included screenings of old newsreels, fascinating classroom visits from living descendants, and multiple field trips to the Museum of History and Industry, where an extensive, interactive exhibition about Nellie Goodhue’s impact on the Pacific Northwest would be on permanent display. Even typically dreary tasks like memorizing vocabulary lists and writing reports would be enlivened by the subject at their center: the indomitable, brave, visionary, self-sacrificing, and beautiful Nellie Goodhue.
The Nellie Goodhue property, which was converted to a warehouse space in the late 1970s, is now known as the North Annex.
But Charles hadn’t returned. Abruptly, a few weeks after the end of the 1962–1963 school year, he and his parents moved out of their Haller Lake rambler to a house where the neighborhood school was Greenwood Elementary and where he navigated fifth grade at an under-the-radar altitude, achieving neither academic success nor social distinction — which, after his experiences at Nellie Goodhue, was exactly what he wanted.
The district tried to sell the North Annex two years ago, but the soil was contaminated from heating oil leaked from underground storage tanks.
Charles’s mother told him at some point that even if they hadn’t moved, he would have been enrolled in a different school. After what happened on that playground, she’d declared, there was absolutely no question of you going back. Your father and I were in complete agreement about that .?.?. Charles could never tell whether these statements were offered as reassurance or blame; his mother could be hard to read that way.
When he dreamed of her, she was rarely in view but standing within the presumed enclosure formed by hundreds of bulging cardboard boxes, stacked too high, mildewed, dangerously unsteady. Charles knew she was in there, somewhere, unspeaking, inscrutable, her presence revealed by the occasional sound of agitated ice cubes and the intermittent appearance of cigarette smoke signals telegraphing mild to moderate distress.
Charles took a sip of coffee. His stomach suddenly felt raw, abraded, ulcerous, as if it were empty, as if there were nothing down there to absorb the acidity.
As soon as the district completes its plans to tear down the former school, the property will be ready to put on the market.
He’d read the article several times, not because he couldn’t retain its contents — in fact, by the sixth reading, they were practically memorized — ...
Washington Book Award Finalist
“Kallos’s earlier novels, Broken for You (2004) and Sing Them Home (2009), have been widely praised, and her third deserves all of those kudos and more. This novel, masterfully plotted and written, is a wondrously beautiful story of love and loss, offering hope in the face of the harshest reality.” — Booklist, starred review
“Touchingly humane and impressive in scope . . . A voluminous novel exploring words and expression, parenting and letting go.” — Kirkus Reviews
"Charles Marlow and his ex-wife face a difficult question about their autistic son's future in the latest novel by best-selling Seattle author Stephanie Kallos. She peels away layer after layer of a father's heart, revealing a life riddled with vivid memories, surprising complications, and full of love."—Oregon Live
“For me, it would be plenty if a novel was deeply felt, utterly absorbing, and full of wit. But in Language Arts, Stephanie Kallos goes further, throwing in a doozy of a twist that had me going back to page one to understand how she pulled off such dazzling sleight of hand. An all-around delight.” — Maria Semple, best-selling author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
“Language Arts was like yoga for my heart—my sentiments were stretched and strengthened, my imagination challenged and contorted, and when I finished, I felt grateful for this beautifully honest, lyrical journey. I loved this book.” — Jamie Ford, best-selling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
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