Completely by chance, or maybe by one of those inner whims that guides our reading without our realizing it (or maybe it’s just October), I’ve now read three books in a row that had to do with strange beings, magic, and struggles between people and the elemental forces of nature. They were Tallula Rising, by Glen Duncan (werewolves); Tracks, by Louise Erdrich (spells, Christianity, and water monsters, among other things); and the one I’m reviewing now — St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Karen Russell’s debut collection of short stories. I’ll review all three separately, but I do think I see this book in a somewhat different light, having read them so close together.
I love weirdness, and I particularly love it in the form of short stories, where wild, original ideas are most likely to be well-sustained. (It is my humble opinion that you need a genius to sustain a truly weird idea for the length of an entire novel; I’m sure you can all think of a few successes and a few failures.) Karen Russell has the weird ideas down pat. Most of her narrators are precocious children or adolescents in strange situations, struggling against the essential oddness of nature, or against their own natures (as if adolescence weren’t hard enough), or against circumstance. We have Elijah, in “Z.Z.’s Sleepaway Camp for Disordered Dreamers,” whose dreams prophesy the past; we have Big Red, in “The City of Shells,” who is fiercely isolated until she understands connection by being trapped in a giant conch shell; we have the boy who travels West with his pioneer family to find greener pastures — for his father to graze in, because Dad is a Minotaur, in “from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration.”
I’ve seen several reviews of these stories describe them as “glittering,” “cheerful and upbeat,” and “delightful fun.” What are these reviewers smoking? While it is true that Russell has a lightness of touch that makes these stories original and acrobatic, there is a strong sense of uneasiness and menace in each one of them. She uses descriptions of beautiful yet dangerous nature — dripping swamps, lurking crocodiles, narrow openings of caves, claustrophobic blizzards, jagged shells — and makes them into the instruments of epiphany for the protagonists. There is no way out but through, and the danger clearly resides in the psyche — nature not being separate from human beings — as well as in the surroundings.
The best, and also the most disturbing of these stories on a number of levels, is the title story. Here we see the sons and daughters of werewolves (it skips a generation) entering on a painful process of re-civilization at the hands of nuns, hiding their instincts and trying their best to operate within socially accepted norms. The one wolf-girl, Mirabella, who can’t or won’t accept the new conditions is finally rejected, used as a scapegoat (scapewolf?) for all the other girls’ fears, and sent away. In the end, the wolf-girls are unable either to live properly in human society or to return home to their wolf-parents.
Of course, this is the terrible story of the way Native children were taken from their parents to off-reservation boarding schools to be “civilized” and educated (often by nuns) into white society. Their hair was cut, they were given new clothing and “pronounceable” names, they were taught a new religion and new social norms, and taught that “the INDIAN in you is DEAD.” Of course, it didn’t work, even if you agreed with the horrifying principle: they weren’t respected among whites and couldn’t really go home, either. Russell tells the story in a fresh and interesting way. What I’m not so sure about is presenting the dilemma as between two different species, wolves and humans. I feel this is queerly disrespectful, since she does so much with the emotional burden of it. Over all the stories, as in this one, the constant battle between people and nature becomes very marked. The other two books I read — Duncan’s and Erdrich’s — treat these divisions differently.
If you typically don’t enjoy short stories, this book won’t change your mind. Russell’s short stories tend to feel like excerpts from something longer (she makes several references throughout the book to Tropical Storm Vita, for instance, as if it’s something we should know) and often end on a slightly unresolved chord. Still, for me, they were strange and melancholy and interesting enough to make me want to read more.