A small town's embrace of “unschooling” reveals massive government corruption and personal battles in Oakley’s debut novel, the first in a planned series.
In the intentional community of Carpe Diem, Illinois, the town’s 3,000 residents educate their children using a hands-off home-schooling method known as “unschooling,” much to the consternation of a state senator and a political aide. Veteran reporter Leo, who wavers between hard-hitting investigative journalism and drinking binges, is given one final chance to turn his career around when he’s assigned to the town to get the story. As he uncovers connections among the town’s leaders, a near-fatal accident and a bill to ban home schooling in the state, he realizes that he has the chance to once again break a story about massive political corruption. A secondary plotline follows Tali, the daughter of the anti–home-schooling senator, who finds her own place for herself in Carpe Diem as her mother recovers in the local hospital. Oakley does a good job of wrapping up the many complex plot threads by the end of the book. However, the story relies heavily on coincidence and readers’ willingness to suspend disbelief regarding the more outlandish machinations. Characters often engage in expository conversations about the value of alternative forms of education. On the whole, however, the book avoids preachiness as it presents the many positive aspects of unschooling. The prose is somewhat unpolished, particularly in its excessive repetition of minor details; Leo’s ringtone, for example, is described nearly every time he answers his phone, and readers are also repeatedly told how attractive he is. That said, Leo is an engaging character throughout, with enough faults and complexities to keep readers’ attention.
A unique combination of small-town chronicle and political thriller that’s likely to draw in fans of both genres.