Author: Karen Russell
Type: Fiction, short stories
I read it: September 2015
Having read the rest of Russell’s books and finally circled back to her first story collection, it’s fun to see a couple seeds being planted. The most obvious is the lead story, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” which was expanded upon to become the novel Swamplandia! The story is a satisfying little nugget that gave me good memories of the longer book. And then there’s “Z.Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers,” which seems to tread some of the same ground as her novella Sleep Donation. Even “from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration” sets the stage for characters homesteading across the plains, an idea which Russell revisited in the story “Proving Up” from Vampires in the Lemon Grove.
The ten stories in this collection deserve to be grouped together; most of them take place in a strange swampy island community that is sticky and tangible. Some even share peripheral characters. Russell can put you straight into the head of any colorful dreamer she chooses, until you feel the sand and sweat between the sentences. She conjures phrases like “It’s a wordless sound, a wild sound, this animal pain that can’t be haltered and led to meaning” or “She’d talk like that her whole life, I thought with a gloomy satisfaction, each word winced out like an apology for itself.” How does she do that?
The shared setting of the bulk of the stories has me confused about one thing. Why does “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” which rests in the final slot, get to be the title of the book? This is one that doesn’t take place by the waterside. It does have a great title, and highlights the animal obsession of the author, but it seems like “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” would have been a similarly catchy title. Perhaps Russell knew that story would get its own spotlight down the line.
Anyway, this book and Vampires are excellent little showcases for strange and piercing modern short stories.