Lessons in Another Language
Not since Alice Munro's The Beggar Maid has there been a book which so articulately reveals the complex emotional spectrum of children caught in the adult world. The novella and four stories in Lessons in Another Language give voice to adolescent protagonists who inhabit rich emotional and sensual worlds as they navigate the wreckage created by the adults meant to be caring for them.
In "Daily Life of the Pioneers" two misguided parents send their children to an austere summer camp designed to mimic the lives of the "pioneer children...your diet will be raw vegetables which are very tasty and very healthy." "Why?" asks one of the children, a question that resonates through Staffel's stories as they present the often-naïve ways we adults project our lives and anxieties onto our children.
Charlotte, newly arrived at a southern college, wanders into town and is seduced by a thirty-something guy with a car because "the way he looked at her made her feel like maybe she wasn't the only refugee. Like maybe he knew her same troubles."
Lessons in Another Language weaves evocative narratives of abandonment and confusion, of hope betrayed more often than fulfilled.
Nathan Bogmore, the protagonist of the opening story, "The Linguist," is literally learning a new language, studying French verbs in the country, where his artist mother has dragged the family on a "working vacation." Likewise, all of Staffel's characters find themselves getting "lessons in another language," the language of adulthood, of danger and opportunity. Circumstances--an enforced relocation, a trip home, the arrival of new neighbors and with them a new best friend--veer these characters towards a trouble they're one step behind understanding. In the mind of Sam Sperry, the contemplative voice at the center of the tour-de-force novella, "Natives and Strangers," "It was a big, complicated mess, and the only messes Sam had experience with were the simple ones that got cleaned up with angry voices, a slap on the face, or a sink full of dish soap."
Staffel's noir stories are exquisite, gripping observations of lives humbled by the power of the rural land that surrounds them, of people haunted by the enormity of their longings. Their lessons and the language they teach us offer a new and compelling translation of what it means to be a family in the modern world.