I am trying to catch up with all the collections suggested and recommended to me after posting my “favorite 100 short story collection of the 21st century” list. So, here’s my response to my favorite question—“I would really like to know what you think about…--”vis-a-vis Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006).
This is a youthful book in many ways. Russell was only 25 when the book came out. Lord, one of the stories, “Haunting Olivia,” came out in the New Yorker when she was only 22! A graduate of Columbia’s MFA program (No. 25 in Poets and Writers' Top Fifty MFA programs in the Sept/Oct issue), Russell raises the suspicion that many of these stories were written as class assignments. Nothing wrong with that, of course, except writing to an assignment is sort of like teaching to the test, isn’t it? Could lead to a narrow sort of focus aimed to please.
I read the first two stories—“Ava Wrestles the Alligator” and “Haunting Olivia” with pleasure. They made me smile. The basic concept that seems to guide the book-- a concept that Russell probably discovered as she wrote the first couple of stories—might be expressed this way: Since from their own perspective, children sometimes feel they live in a quite different universe than their parents (which is why fairy tales appeal to children), why not explore some of the basic conflicts that young people experience—peer pressure, sibling rivalry, conflict with parents, burgeoning sexuality—from the perspective of a world that, while it seems somehow familiarly real, is really most definitely strange and surreal? Not a bad idea, right? But for me, a little of this goes a long way. After reading subsequent stories in the book about alternate worlds—such as a sleep-away camp for disordered dreamers, a palace of artificial snows, and a city of shells—by the time I got to the last story about a home for girls raised by wolves, I was not smiling quite so much.
I will comment only on the two stories that I liked the best. In “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” Ava (whose name she tells us is a palindrome—where she got that little byte of info is not known) is jealous of her overweight sister named Ossie, who, like Karen Russell herself (who is not overweight, but is cheerleader cute) “has entire kingdoms inside of her.” Mainly, Ossie is “possessed” by horny boyfriends, currently one named Luscious, invoked by her for masturbatory fantasies. Ava and Ossie’s family own a Gator Theme Park in the Everglades named Swamplandia (Russell is currently working on a novel named Swamplandia, from which the New Yorker recently published an excerpt in its “20 under 40” series—see my earlier blog on this).
Russell has one little literary tic that trips me up occasionally. I mentioned it in my earlier blog on her New Yorker story. She likes to throw in little “educated” references uttered by her uneducated narrators. But then she has to justify the allusion by citing its origin. For example, she wants to use the metaphor of having Ava “graph the coordinates” of her love and courage, but has to tell us she is learning latitude and longitude in school. She wants to use the concept of language as being what separates us from animals, but Ava must attribute it to her science teacher, Ms. Huerta. Lord knows where Ava got the idea of “affect” when she says she feels a numb surprise at her “own lack of affect” or where she got the word “turbid” when she says she peers into a “turbid pit.”
There’s no doubt that Russell has a facile way with imagery and language. At the end of the story, Ossie, whose fleshy sexuality contrasts with Ava’s pancake-flat breasts, walks naked into the swamp with all her mysterious animality in evidence: “As she walks toward the water, flying sparks come shivering out of her hair, off of her shoulders, a miniature hailstorm. It’s the lizards! I realize. She is shaking them off in a scaly shower, flakes of living armor.” When Ava drags her out of the swamp, her finger nails make little half moon marks on Ossie’s arm which swell into puffy welts, “As if something were still clawing at her from within, pushing outwards, a pressure that is trying to break the skin.” Nice metaphor, don’t you think, for the id-like forces that threaten to break out, like the creature in the first Alien movie that scared the crap out of us.
In “Haunting Olivia,” two brothers are co-conspirators in the accidental disappearance/death of their sister Olivia. The story begins at Gannon’s Boat Graveyard, a “watery junkyard” where people abandon old boats, when they find a pair of magical goggles that allow them to see things in the water that others cannot see (the old magical glasses fairy tale gimmick). Russell has the narrator, Timothy Sparrow, say that his brother, Waldo Swallow, has a thick pelt of black hair because his father jokes that his mother must have had “dalliances with a Minotaur”— (For a little intertextual in joke, the reader should fast forward to the story in the book “from Children’s’ Reminiscences of the Westward Migration” for a tale about a boy who does have a Minotaur for a father).
Olivia, 8 years old, disappears in a whimsical way (everything is whimsy in Karen Russell’s stories). Her brothers simply push her too hard down a slide at in a crab shell (a sort of sled made out of giant crab shells), and a wave takes her away. This does not seem to be a great tragedy in the story overall, for Olivia, like Ossie in “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” is another Russell avatar. Described by her brother as a “cartographer of imaginary places,” she creates an underwater hideaway called Glowworm Grotto.” In an echo of what Russell’s parents may have felt about her as a child, Timothy the narrator says, “I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Olivia was an adoptee from some other planet.” The grotto’s walls are coated with the feces of glowworms, which, as everyone knows, glows in the dark, giving it a yucky beauty. At the end of the story, when the brothers try to find Olivia there, Timothy goes into the Grotto with the magical goggles. “Every fish burns lantern-bright, and I can’t tell the living from the dead. It’s all just blurry light, light smeared like some celestial fingerprint all over the rocks and the reef and the sunken garbage. Olivia could be everywhere.”
Another nice concluding metaphor to reflect that basic human desire for transcendence, metamorphosis, spiritual dissolution, and the ultimate return of the self to that which it was before it was.
I enjoyed these two stories. They seem to get at the heart of Russell’s narrative ploy. Although “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” makes for an intriguing book title, I felt that the concept of using fantastical wolfish transformations to reflect childhood and early adolescent feelings of bestial urges and alienation—they are little animals, after all, aren’t they? —was just too predictable. And too much "keeping with the concept."
My old guy reaction to these stories is that they are fun to read as childlike fantasies and illuminate some of childhood’s strangeness, they lack the depth that real exploration of these experiences require. When it comes to magical realism or philosophically significant fantasies, Karen Russell just needs more intellectual background. She is still so young. For profound explorations of the issues she explores superficially here, I prefer the mature vision of Borges, Garcia Marquez, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, George Saunders, and Steven Millhauser. But then, that’s just the way we old guys are. We prefer fiction that makes us think, not just makes us smile.