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Saturday, September 9th, 2006
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St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves: Stories

by Karen Russell

A Child's Garden of Fabulism

A review by Alexis Smith

Someday, in the distant future (should the human race survive), parents will settle down in the evenings to read their children stories that are being written now, just as we might settle down to read Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales, or the Greek myths, or Native American legends. Karen Russell's debut collection of short stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, reads like the old stories of the future might: stylistically contemporary, but eerily timeless; stories so haunting, magical, and lyrical they will be read over and over again, for the pure joy of the tale.

The ten stories here, two of which originally appeared in the New Yorker, are set primarily in swampy coastal spaces of Florida's everglades, complete with gator wrestlers and endangered baby turtles. The beauty here is in what Russell adds to the already image-laden environment. She employs magical realism in healthy doses throughout the collection, so that children sled down sand dunes on the eviscerated former shells of giant crabs, and prehistoric conches as big as houses, washed up on an island, become a theme park called The City of Shells. In contemporary American publishing, fabulism seems to be the preferred term for the new lot of North American magical-realist fiction, and Russell's stories can easily be read alongside Aimee Bender, Judy Budnitz, and Kelly Link, all of whom explore the decidedly elastic boundaries between narrative realism and genres like fantasy, horror, and speculative fiction.

Russell's work shares more with Angela Carter though, whose stories often present childhood and adolescence -- especially nascent sexuality -- through the fantastic, occasionally animalistic, lens of the fairy tale. In "Ava Wrestles the Alligator," Russell's prepubescent narrator witnesses her delusional older sister's nightly visits from her imaginary ghost lover, Luscious. Alone on the family gator farm/tourist trap, Ava spends the nights trailing her sister, Ossie, through mangroves and weeds, listening to her solitary lovemaking. The experience is both frightening and enticing for Ava.

My older sister has entire kingdoms inside of her, and some of them are only accessible at certain seasons, in certain kinds of weather. One such melting occurs in the summer rain, at midnight, during the vine-green breathing time right before sleep. You have to ask her just the right question, throw the right rope bridge, to get there -- and then bolt across the chasm between you, before your bridge collapses.

Ava's own foray into taboo territory is more sinister: the Bird Man who appears one dawn whistling "a single note, held in an amber suspension of time." Captivated, she asks what bird he is calling, and the Bird Man answers, "'You.'" Heeding his call leaves her both wise and untethered, unsure of how to navigate in Ossie's territory. With the background sounds of the penned gators, the birds, the insects, the swamp's unseen inhabitants, and her older sister's primal moaning, Russell creates a metaphorical setting for adolescence as unsettling and emotionally resonant as any ever written.

Russell is clearly not writing for children, but childhood plays an important role in the telling of these stories. The first-person narrators of the stories are most often children or teens, and their relationships with each other and with adults are the primary focus of the stories. The fantastic details serve not only to imbue the stories with a sense of childlike possibility, but also to symbolically derange the notion of childhood as a time of purity, innocence, and bliss. Childhood, as it is in these stories, is enticing, exhilarating, and dangerous, haunted by long-extinct ancient sea creatures, misguided ancestors, and missing parents and siblings.

Russell is at her best when the child narrators assess the adults around them. In "Accident Brief, Occurrence # 00/422," one of the strongest stories in the collection (and also one that does not take place in the fantasy Everglades), Tek is the worst singer in the prized local boys' choir, harangued by his sanctimonious, patriotic stepfather.

My step-dad, Mr. Oamaru, seems most proud of me for the sins that I resist: I don't chew tobacco, I don't fake sick, I don't vandalize silos. Once, he actually complimented me for not "diddling with" the reindeer, as the Tau boys have been rumored to do. These are tough victories to take pride in.

The locals take pride in their pirate heritage, and as an annual homage -- a sort of Independence Day celebration -- they send the boys' choir to the top of a glacier to sing a traditional shanty called "The Pirate's Conquest!" until they cause an avalanche. The "conquest" was of the local native people, the Moa. Tek, like many other child narrators in the collection, is skeptical of the adult world and its blind acceptance of its own version of reality.

It's our local anthem. These squirrelly arpeggios that celebrate our pirate forebears' every ancient offense. Verse 1: The quick extinction of their sacred red penguins. Verse 2: The depletion of their greenstone quarries. Verse 3: The invasion of their mothers' bodies. Verse 4: Their stolen treasure. And what did we bring the Moa in return? Grog and possums. Quail pox. Whores.

The disturbing disaster that follows Tek's flight to the glacier is one of the most beautiful, fraught passages in the book. Russell has a talent for genuinely startling turns of events, but she never allows the fantastic elements to stand in for satisfying emotional revelations. "Accident Brief" pivots so gracefully between the imaginary arctic society's reckless indulgences and the boy's own sense of injustice and loss that there is never a question of whether or not to suspend our disbelief. There is no disbelief.

What compels readers to follow Russell into story after story is not the "what if" posed by each evocative title ("Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows," "Z.Z.'s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers," and, of course, the unimaginably gorgeous title story, of which even Angela Carter might be proud). Though the titles are intriguing, one begins to ignore them, diving into each new first sentence before glancing at the titles. What compels readers is the delirious glee with which Russell seems to tell these stories, evident in the acrobatic language, the lovely, moving, often funny narrators, and the willingness to ignore the risks involved in invoking the fantastic. Russell is a new old-fashioned storyteller, and luckily, at only twenty-four years old, we can look forward to many, many years of her work.

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