St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

st lucy's homeCompletely 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.

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8 Responses to St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

  1. Alex says:

    Short stories are not for me, but what I do find interesting is the way in which you say one book has influenced the way in which you see those you read at the same time. A friend of mine is of the opinion that books talk to each other and deliberately influence what you think. I’m not so sure about that but I do know that at the moment I seem to be surrounded by stories of war (either in the form of the novel or on stage) and I am definitely reading each successive narrative in the light of what I have learnt from the others.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m not sure precisely what your friend means by “deliberately” but I often find myself reading similar things all at the same time. Why? I don’t do it on purpose, or not often. I try to read different sorts of things each month, in fact. But this month, this is how it turned out, and each book sort of revolved in the light of the others. It’s inevitable, I suppose.

  2. I like weirdness, short stories, and I’ve enjoyed Karen Russell, so this one is high on my want list.

    • Jenny says:

      What else have you read by Russell? I’m tempted most by her other short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, but maybe Swamplandia! would also be good.

  3. Christy says:

    I read this back in 2007 and I just consulted my notes on it, because like you, there is no way I would have ever called her stories cheerful or fun or upbeat. I wrote about the stories at the time: “Almost all of the stories end with a feeling of isolation and loneliness and this can make it hard to really want to continue to the next one.” I also noted that my favorite stories were “Haunting Olivia” because of passages about ghost fish and also the one about the dad who was a Minotaur. This review reminds me that I rarely read short stories collections anymore, but back in 2007, I was a lot more willing to give short story collections a go. But it also may be that my reading choices are much more guided by other bloggers’ recommendations now, and short story collections are not often covered in the blogs.

    • Jenny says:

      I do find that few bloggers like short stories (I do!). These were good, and they are certainly weird, but there’s little that’s fun or even funny about them. They are very much about the struggle. I like what you say about isolation, even in the midst of teeming nature.

  4. Jeanne says:

    I had this book out of the library when it first came out; after reading a few of the stories, I took it back to the library when it was due without renewing it so I could read any more. Since at the time most of my reading had to fit into the time I had before sleep, I think the sense of menace is what made me give it up.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m reading before sleep, too, so maybe it got me down more than it should. But I do think that sense of menace is much stronger than any sense of glee. I just read Tenth of December by George Saunders, though, and those were fantastic. Sad, sometimes, but also profoundly good and therefore affirming and even happy, the way Vonnegut can be, or Twain.

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