Youth's real absurdities in strange terrains, drawn with enthusiasm and playfulness

Review Short Stories

September 10, 2006|By Francesca Delbanco | Francesca Delbanco,Chicago Tribune

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

Karen Russell

Knopf / 246 pages / $22

Veteran readers of literary fiction know better than to judge books by their covers, which are subject to art department whims and marketing trends far beyond writers' control.

But titles are fairer game. In the case of Karen Russell's debut collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, a glance at the table of contents provides a precis of the otherworldly, fabulist short stories to come. Consider "Z.Z.'s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers," "The Star-Gazer's Log of Summer-Time Crime" and "Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows." All that's conjured before the book's first page - in terms of originality, surrealism and eccentricity bordering on preciousness - is borne out in the stories.

The landscapes of Russell's imagination are magical places, where boys race around in rented crab exoskeletons, and girls disappear into giant conchs. These unfamiliar terrains are rendered less strange by the children who populate the stories, a likable group of misfits struggling with the universal challenges of growing up: local bullies, problem siblings, obtuse teachers, ill-equipped parents.

Take, for example, "From Children's Reminiscences of the Westward Migration," which is narrated by the teenage son of a human mother and a Minotaur father. Early in the story, when the Minotaur proposes the family join a caravan of (human) pioneers heading west, the young narrator broods:

"Whenever my folks promised me something, it always turned out to be both more and less than what I had expected. My sisters, for instance. I'd spent nine months carving a fraternal whimmerdoodle, and then Ma gave birth to Maisy and Dotes, twin girls."

This casual blend of insight and, well, whimmerdoodle characterizes much of the collection.

In her most successful stories, the fablelike settings Russell invents throw the very real absurdity of childhood into relief. The title story, the last in the collection, is charming and imaginative. In it, a pack of girls raised by wolves is turned over to a group of nuns and instructed in the ways of being human:

"Our parents wanted something better for us; They wanted us to get braces, use towels, be fully bilingual. When the nuns showed up, our parents couldn't refuse their offer."

The girls' path of domestication chronicled in the story is painful, funny and affecting. It is an apt metaphor for the onset of young womanhood and all the conformity that adulthood entails, a convincing blend of slyness and honesty, as when the narrator realizes:

"This wasn't like the woods, where you had to be your fastest and your strongest and your bravest self. Different sorts of calculations were required to survive at the home."

In other stories, Russell seems carried away by her own inventiveness, and quirkiness stands in for emotional weight. "Ava Wrestles the Alligator," the collection's somewhat off-putting opener, is loaded down by language at the expense of nearly everything else. Thunder "gentle[s] to a soft nicker," the narrator's sister's boyfriends come "silking into her ears and mouth and lungs," that same sister uses "hot spoons and egg dye to style her hair into a lavender vapor" (whatever that means) and the narrator uses "belly-flat," "envelope-flat" and "pancake-flat" as descriptions within the space of 10 pages.

Similarly, "Z.Z.'s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers" suffers from an acute case of preciousness, in evidence from the opening sentences:

"Emma and I are curled together in the basket of the Thomas Edison Insomnia Balloon, our breath coming in soft quick bursts. I am stroking Emma's cheek. I am spooning amber gobs of soporific dough into Emma's open mouth, cadged from Zorba's medicinal larder in anticipation of just such an occasion."

It takes a patient reader to want to struggle through the rest of the paragraph, much less the rest of the story. But even in such passages one can sense Russell's enthusiasm and playfulness, both of which she has in spades.

Francesca Delbanco is the author of the novel "Ask Me Anything." She wrote this article for the Chicago Tribune.

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