Karen Russell’s first book, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, is a collection of ten short stories published in 2006. I read it over a six week period, about as long as I have ever spent on a book and still gone on to finish it. I’m pretty sure it took me so long because these stories are so rich. Reading one of Karen Russell’s stories is a bit like swallowing a spoonful of orange juice concentrate: they are juicy, but intense. While wildly different from each other (as different as different can get, in fact), it is immediately evident that they all come from the same mind, the same imagination. What ties them together, ironically, is the very thing that makes them all so different from each other. While all of the classic elements of good story telling are present in each story (plot, character, conflict, etc), each one has something else, as well – a skewed premise that sets it in a world that tilts at a slightly different rotational axis than our own. One that is very nearly possible, but not probable.
Karen Russell’s stories are set in our familiar landscape (like the swamps of the Everglades) and even in our own common histories (like the settling of West by the pioneers), except, generally, for one thing. That one thing is different in every story. She may add a father figure that is a Minotaur (“Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration”) or take a class of students on a field trip to a dilapidated amusement park of giant conch shells (“The City of Shells”) or set her story in a retirement community that is entirely made up of seniors confined to individual houseboats bobbing in the harbor (“Out to Sea”). My favorite is the title story: “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”. The story imagines what happens when a group of girls that have been raised by their werewolf parents in the wild are given over to a group of nuns that specialize in rehabilitating just these types of girls into human society. The story is about the big themes of repression, socialization, and religion but it deals with it on the level of detail, character, and scene. Russell manages to harness the power of myth and sit it down at the same table as the mundane and force them to have a meal together.
If you give a talented child a box of crayons and one highlighter marker and ask him to draw you a picture of a house, you’d probably be able to recognize the house, but it would likely be visually jarring and disjointed just by virtue of the dissimilar intensities of color. That’s how it is with each of these stories. There is generally one element that is not from the color palette of reality as we know it. Karen Russell achieves unexpected results (and fantastic literature) by allowing the yellow highlighter of her imagination such sway in her writing. Her stories are wild, jubilant, energetic, preposterous, honest, brightly hot, and dead on. If you read them, take the time to savor each one.
St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell (Knopf, 2006)