On the face of it, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is a collection of ten short stories, many of which take place on the same island, many of which contain strong elements of magical realism, and all of which employ precise, evocative language. In “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” against the backdrop of a gator-wrestling theme park, Ava’s sister Olivia is frequently possessed by a succubus, making her “eyes like blown embers.” In “The City of Shells,” a similar theme park is filled with Precambrian Giant Conches big enough to get trapped in. When Big Red and Barnaby do get trapped, Big Red notices the “small bumps where the shell plates have puckered and fused together, like vestigial knobs to vanished doors.” In “Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration,” Jacob’s father, the Minotaur, leads his family down the Overland Trail to the promised land of the western territories.
Underneath the surface, however, the ten stories in this collection crackle with an emotional precision that cuts straight to who we are. In “Out to Sea,” Sawtooth Bigtree lives in his retirement community of houseboats and begrudgingly accepts the company of the volunteer buddy he is given through the juvenile court system. In time, though, his days rise and fall with the arrival and departure of his buddy—“The silence [of his life] is made bearable by the knowledge that a sound is coming.” In the title story of the collection, the children of werewolves are taken in by nuns and rehabilitated into human society according to The Jesuit Handbook on Lycanthropic Culture Shock. Claudette, known as TRRR to her family back in the woods, visits them after her rehabilitation. Seeing how they are “waiting for a display of what [she] had learned,” she tells them her first human lie—“I’m home.”
Aside from her remarkable precision in capturing the emotional heart of being human, Karen Russell most stands out for her ease with withholding closure from her readers. Each of her stories end abruptly, practically mid-scene. There are no answers to if Big Red and Barnaby escape the Giant Conch in “The City of Shells,” no hint of whether Jacob and the Minotaur will make it to the promised land in “Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migrations.” As a reader, I felt the tension of unanswered questions pulling me forward, but found no ground left underneath me to support my way.
As a writer, I gained the permission to disarm my readers and leave them discomforted and unsettled. My writing does not have to neatly weave a coherent tapestry for my readers to look at and admire and go on their way, unchanged. Rather, by withholding that which people crave most—the answer—my words can linger in the thoughts and psyches of my readers long after they put the book down.
Russell, Karen. St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. London: Vintage, 2008.