A San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year
In these ten glittering stories, debut author Karen Russell takes us to the ghostly and magical swamps of the Florida Everglades. Here wolf-like girls are reformed by nuns, a family makes their living wrestling alligators in a theme park, and little girls sail away on crab shells. Filled with stunning inventiveness and heart, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves introduces a radiant new writer.
A series of upbeat, sentimental fables, the 10 stories of Russell's debut are set in an enchanted version of North America and narrated by articulate, emotionally precocious children from dysfunctional households. Each merges the satirical spirit of George Saunders with the sophisticated whimsy of recent animated Hollywood film. In "Ava Wrestles the Alligator," a motherless girl, "staying in Grandpa Sawtooth's old house until our father, Chief Bigtree, gets back from the Mainland," struggles to understand her big sister's blooming sexuality, which seems to grow scaly and incarnate. Timothy Sparrow and Waldo Swallow Heartland, the two brothers of "Haunting Olivia," search for their sister's ghost near Gannon's Boat Graveyard using a pair of magic swimming goggles. In the title story, the human daughters of werewolves are socialized into polite society. Russell has powers of description and mimicry reminiscent of Jonathan Safron Foer ("My father, the Minotaur, is more obdurate than any man," begins "Children's Reminiscences of the Westward Migration"), and her macabre fantasies structurally evoke great Southern writers like Flannery O'Connor. If, at 24, Russell hasn't quite found a theme beyond growing up is hard to do (especially if you're a wolf girl), her assorted siblings are rendered with winning flair as they gambol, perilously and charmingly, toward adulthood. (Sept.)
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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September 04, 2006
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Excerpt from St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell
Ava Wrestles the Alligator
My sister and I are staying in Grandpa Sawtooth's old house until our father, Chief Bigtree, gets back from the Mainland. It's our first summer alone in the swamp. "You girls will be fine," the Chief slurred. "Feed the gators, don't talk to strangers. Lock the door at night." The Chief must have forgotten that it's a screen door at Grandpa's--there is no key, no lock. The old house is a rust-checkered yellow bungalow at the edge of the wild bird estuary. It has a single, airless room; three crude, palmetto windows, with mosquito-blackened sills; a tin roof that hums with the memory of rain. I love it here. Whenever the wind gusts in off the river, the sky rains leaves and feathers. During mating season, the bedroom window rattles with the ardor of birds.
Now the thunder makes the thin window glass ripple like wax paper. Summer rain is still the most comforting sound that I know. I like to pretend that it's our dead mother's fingers, drumming on the ceiling above us. In the distance, an alligator bellows--not one of ours, I frown, a free agent. Our gators are hatched in incubators. If they make any noise at all, it's a perfunctory grunt, bored and sated. This wild gator has an inimitable cry, much louder, much closer. I smile and pull the blankets around my chin. If Osceola hears it, she's not letting on. My sister is lying on the cot opposite me. Her eyes are wide open, and she is smiling and smiling in the dark.
"Hey, Ossie? Is it just you in there?"
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 summer rain, at midnight, during the vine-green breathing time right before sleep. You have to ask the right question, throw the right rope bridge, to get there--and then bolt across the chasm between you, before your bridge collapses.
"Ossie? Is it just us?" I peer into the grainy dark. There's the chair that looks like a horned devil's silhouette. There's the blind glint of the terrarium glass. But no Luscious. Ossie's evil boyfriend has yet to materialize.
"Yup," she whispers. "Just us." Ossie sounds wonderfully awake. She reaches over and pats my arm.
"Just us girls."
That does it. "Just us!" we scream. And I know that for once, Ossie and I are picturing the same thing. Miles and miles of swamp, and millions and millions of ghosts, and just us, girls, bungalowed in our silly pajamas.
We keep giggling, happy and nervous, tickled by an incomplete innocence. We both sense that some dark joke is being played on us, even if we can't quite grasp the punch line.
"What about Luscious?" I gasp. "You're not dating Luscious anymore?"
Uh-oh. There it is again, that private smile, the one that implies that Ossie is nostalgic for places I have never been, places I can't even begin to imagine.
Ossie shakes her head. "Something else, now."
"Somebody else? You're not still going to, um," I pause, trying to remember her word, "elope? Are you?"
Ossie doesn't answer. "Listen," she breathes, her eyes like blown embers. The thunder has gentled to a soft nicker. Outside, something is scratching at our dripping window. "He's here."
You know, Ossie's possessions are nothing like those twitch-fests you read about in the Bible, no netherworld voices or pigs on a hill. Her body doesn't smolder like a firecracker, or ululate in dead languages. Her boyfriends possess her in a different way. They steal over her, silking into her ears and mouth and lungs, stealthy and pervasive, like sickness or swallowed water. I watch her metamorphosis in guilty, greedy increments. Ossie is sweating. Ossie is heavy-breathing. She puts her fist in her mouth, her other hand disappearing beneath the covers.
Then she moans, softly.
And I get that peculiar knot of fear and wonder and anger, the husk that holds my whole childhood. Here is another phase change that I don't understand, solid to void, happening in such close proximity to me. The ghost is here. I know it, because I can see my sister disappearing, can feel the body next to me emptying of my Ossie, and leaving me alone in the room. Luscious is her lewdest boyfriend yet. The ghost is moving through her, rolling into her hips, making Ossie do a jerky puppet dance under the blankets. This happens every night, lately, and I'm helpless to stop him. Get out of here, Luscious! I think very loudly. Get back in your grave! You leave my sister alone. . . .
Hag-ridden, her cot is starting to swing.
I am so jealous of Ossie. Every time the lights flicker in a storm, or a dish clatters to the floor, it's a message from her stupid boyfriend. The wind in her hair, the wind in the trees, all of it a whistled valentine. And meanwhile who is busy decapitating stinking ballyhoo for the gators? Who is plunging the Bigtree latrines, and brushing the plaster teeth inside the Gator Head? Exactly.