Friday, August 26, 2011

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell

The title of this 2006 story collection, the first by Florida author Karen Russell, is a good clue to the book as a whole. Russell’s world is easily recognizable even as it is weirdly bizarre. It combines the magical realism of writers like Borges Gabriel Garcia Marquez with the lush psychological realism of Eudora Welty (who herself is something of a magical realist). Each of these stories takes a surprising and new approach to its subject. Each story seems a kind of hallucination in which distinctions between dream and the real are blurred and sometimes simply not there.

An example is the first story, “Ava Wrestles an Alligator,” a young girl’s story of her life with her sister and father (Chief Bigtree) in a roadside alligator park called “Swamplandia.” The girl’s hulking older sister goes out into the swamps in the night to lay with ghostly lovers. Does the young narrator, naively uncomprehending, simply believe the stories her sister tells? Is her sister what she seems—a deeply disturbed young woman, or something more? The genius of this story is that it doesn’t allow the supernatural to be reduced to a matter of limited narrative viewpoint.

In “Haunting Olivia” a brother and sister search for their dead sister’s underwater ghost.

“Z. Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers” is about a summer camp for children with sleeping disorders. The two main characters dream about historical events that have already happened. The camp leader’s wife suffers from paranoid dreams about ravenous packs of dogs which she acts out in her sleep by killing her husband’s beloved sheep.

My favorite story is “from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration.” A boy tells his family’s story of traveling west on a wagon train. They suffer storms, sickness, squabbles with other families, marital tensions. The story’s descriptive powers are considerable—I was reminded of Charles Portis and True Grit. As things grow more difficult, the boy’s parents’ marriage is increasingly strained, but finally they resolve their difficulties. The one unexpected element in this story is that the boy’s father, Asterion, is a minotaur.

In “Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows” a boy talks about the ice rink where people from his hometown go to escape the heat of the summer and the tensions of their middle-aged and disappointed lives. The palace features a group of skating monkeys, a DJ who never takes off her Yeti costume, and an apocalyptic artificial snow storm with blizzard force winds. Inside the ice rink, the rest of the world falls away.

In “The City of Shells” a janitor tries to rescue a little girl stuck in a huge artificial conch shell at a New Jersey amusement park as a hurricane approaches. He ends up stuck in the shell himself.

“Out to Sea” describes an ocean-bound retirement community where each elderly person lives in his or her own private boat. Focused on an old man who falls in love with the young woman who’s assigned to be his companion (she’s doing community service), the story is sad. The final paragraph: “When he was a boy growing up on the swamp, Sawtooth used to know all of the constellations, but now he has forgotten how to find them. Overhead, the sky lurches in unfamiliar, opalescent swirls. All around him, the muted yellow lamps of his neighbors’ boats blink off quietly, one by one, until Sawtooth is left alone bobbing in the darkness.”

In “Accident Brief, Occurrence #00/422,” the Waitiki Valley Boys Choir flies to the top of a glacier once each year in a ceremony that is meant to cause an avalanche and that is also an important community ritual. The narrator’s befriending of a mute boy in the choir leads to dark tragedy after their helicopter crashes. The setting seems to be entirely fantastic—descendants of the Moa tribe and the pirates who overran them populate the story. The boy is angry because his father ran off and his mother has married to another man, Mr. Oamaru, whom the boy resents.

Most of these stories don’t end conventionally. They just stop, and the effect is unsettling. “Haunting Olivia” ends in a cave where a young boy is looking for his sister. “The City of Shells” ends with the girl and janitor stuck in a conch shell. “Children’s Reminiscences” ends with a covered wagon family headed for what seems a bleak disaster. The stories are set in or near a swamp in central Florida. Yet their world seems an alternative one to our own—place names, histories, geographies--all different and unfamiliar. A number of the stories involve children who have lost their parents, especially their fathers, or who in some way come from families in crisis. This collection, including its title, struck me as novel, whimsical, interesting, and off-kilter. Fantasy and nightmare commingle, but the human element in each story never falls from view.

Loneliness is a major theme—the loneliness of children forced into adulthood, lost or abandoned by parents, facing calamity in any number of forms, children who encounter too soon the void of the world.

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