St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves

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Thursday, June 30, 2011
St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves by Karen Russell.

I love this collection. The stories are strange, but also swampy, sweaty, and salty in a particularly Floridian way. It's the most Florida thing I've read - there are a lot of authors who write about that oddball state; many novels of comic crime and overt corruption - but this is the closest I've read to my own Florida experience (age 4 - 17) living on the southern gulf coast. I don't mean actual things that happened to me (that would be weird), but in general otherworldly atmosphere and intangibles: water everywhere, fragrant orange blossoms, the swamp, the nighttime chorus of alligators and crickets, hot sand, giant shells, the salty crust that seawater leaves when it dries on the skin, the stomach lurch or serenity of being on a boat, the hazy heat of the sun, still water, hurricanes, the humidity, the boredom, the general hallucinatory quality of everyday experiences like being outside.

Of course it's not only Florida, or Florida alone in this book - there are ghosts, minotaurs, wolf girls, Insomnia Balloons, pirate treasure in a glacier, roller skating, and much, much more that isn't necessarily tied to geography. This book is pretty dark and definitely weird - I like that about it, but I know it's not for everyone - maybe too dark or too whimsical for some, but it hit me just right and helped me remember more than just the humidity and the bugs.

The first story in the book - Ava Wrestles the Alligator - became the basis for her recently published novel, Swamplandia!  Here she describes exactly what an alligator sounds like when you're alone in the humid dark. I love the quality of her descriptions:

The air hits me like a wall, hot and muggy. I run as far as the entrance to the stand of mangrove trees, and stop short. The ground sends out feelers, a vegetable panic. The longer I stand there, the more impossible movement seems. 
And then comes that familiar sound, that raw bellow, pulsing out of the swamp.
The cubed thing inside me melts into a sudden lick of fear. Something hot-blooded and bad is happening to my sister out there, I am sure of it. And the next thing I know I am on the other side of the trees, crashing toward the fishpond. It's a sensory blur, all jumps and stumbles -- oily sinkholes, buried stumps, salt nettles tearing at my flesh. I run for what feels like a very long time. One wisp of cloud blows out the moon. 
I wish I could say I gulp pure courage as I run, like those brave little girls you read about in stories, the ones who partner up with detective cats. But this burst of speed comes from an older adrenaline, some limbic other. Not courage, but a deeper terror. I don't want to be left alone. And I am ready to defend Ossie against whatever monster I encounter, ghosts or men or ancient lizards, and save her for myself.  
Me being me, I love the reference to "the brave little girls you read about in stories, the ones who partner up with detective cats."  There's definitely a dark fairy tale quality to many of these pieces, but I think when it comes right down to it, LIFE often has a dark fairy tale quality (which is why the tales endure). At times these stories reminded me of Kelly Link or Aimee Bender, but mostly they reminded me of nothing but themselves.

FIVE STARS from me, but if I hadn't grown up in Florida with alligators in my back yard, I'd probably give it four because I know she's just going to get better and better. Karen Russell is young and so talented -  I hope there will be many more books to come from her. I've got Swamplandia! lined up to read soon. I can hardly wait.
(read March 2011)
3 comments on "St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves"
  1. I read this collection back when it first came out and loved some of the stories. Too bad Swamplandia comes out a week after my trip to Tampa in two weeks! It would be perfect plan reading for the way there!

  2. I remember you saying "you'd love this" to me but it took me this long to read it - you were right!

    Good news is: Swamplandia! is out now!!!! It came out in May or something. (just checked: February!)

  3. Oooh! I just saw something about 7/24 on Amazon. Maybe that was the paperback. Woohoo! (Because you know if I can't read it on the flight to Tampa, I can NEVER read it! Not ever.)

    P.s. Do you see now that you should listen to me???


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