Review: St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

Goodreads Summary (a bit shortened) :
A dazzling debut, a blazingly original voice: the ten stories in St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves introduce a radiant new talent.

In the collection’s title story, a pack of girls raised by wolves are painstakingly reeducated by nuns. In “Haunting Olivia,” two young boys make midnight trips to a boat graveyard in search of their dead sister, who set sail in the exoskeleton of a giant crab. In “Z.Z.’s Sleepaway Camp for Disordered Dreamers,” a boy whose dreams foretell implacable tragedies is sent to a summer camp for troubled sleepers (Cabin 1, Narcoleptics; Cabin 2, Sleep Apneics; Cabin 3, Somnambulists . . . ). And “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” introduces the remarkable Bigtree Wrestling Dynasty—Grandpa Sawtooth, Chief Bigtree, and twelve-year-old Ava—proprietors of Swamplandia!, the island’s #1 Gator Theme Park and Café
Russell’s stories are beautifully written and exuberantly imagined, but it is the emotional precision behind their wondrous surfaces that makes them unforgettable. Magically, from the spiritual wilderness and ghostly swamps of the Florida Everglades, against a backdrop of ancient lizards and disconcertingly lush plant life—in an idiom that is as arrestingly lovely as it is surreal—Karen Russell shows us who we are and how we live.
Know what made me pick up this anthology of short stories, despite being someone who prefers novels a lot more? The title of this book. St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.
What. A. Title.
I knew I was in for something original, quirky, fascinating and magical the moment I started reading the first story- Ava Wrestles the Alligator- which is a real treat. A young girl, living in a swamp, looking after alligators while her sister has an affair with a ghost named Luscious? How much more original can you get? More than this, though, Karen Russel's prose is simply stunning. I've read Swamplandia! which is her novel based on the Ava story, but the beauty of her writing shines much more in this collection than in the average novel.
Haunting Olivia, which is about two brothers searching for the luminous ghost of their dead sister Olivia underwater using special goggles is simply fabulous. Look at this description of Olivia, for example:
She used to change into Wallow’s rubbery yellow flippers on the bus, then waddle around the school halls like some disoriented mallard. She played “house” by getting the broom and sweeping the neon corpses of dead jellyfish off the beach. Her eyes were a stripey cerulean, inhumanly bright. Dad used to tell Olivia that a merman artisan had made them, out of bits of sea glass from Atlantis.

In ZZ's Camp for Disordered Dreamers, we come across Elijah, with the ability to predict things that have already happened in the past through his dreams. A "pastmonition" as he calls it, again this short story is simply fascinating, because it seems rather unlikely to be set in this world.
Here's a sampler:
Z.Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp is divided down all kinds of lines: campers who can’t sleep vs. campers who sleep too much, campers who control their bladders vs. campers who do not, campers who splinter through headboards vs. campers who lie still as the dead.
In yet another, strange and marvellous story, a boy recounts his memories of migrating with his Minotaur father (yes! with horns!) and in another, a large woman runs a Palace of Artificial Snows and causes a huge, festival-like event called the Blizzard, and in yet another, little girls sail away on Precambrian Shells. The title of the book is the title of the final story, where a group of nuns try to civilize a set of girls raised by wolves.

Each story in this short collection is as fascinating as the one before, basically because Russel seems to have no rules when it comes to her imagined world. Her world, an island in Florida Everglades, I think someone has said, is at once both startlingly too familiar yet utterly magical. It's a place where anything can happen. With well-drawn characters (a feat when you're writing short-stories), abrupt, almost flourish-like endings that leave you gaping, and a totally new look at the art of story-telling, this collection is really, truly, surely, one to cherish.

That said, my favourite is Ava Wrestles the Alligator, so I'll leave you with a short quote from it (Do read this if you haven't, it's an experience!) :
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.

We’d heard rumors about former wolf-girls who never adapted to their new culture. It was assumed that they were returned to our native country, the vanishing woods. We liked to speculate about this before bedtime, scaring ourselves with stories of catastrophic bliss. It was the disgrace, the failure that we all guiltily hoped for in our hard beds. Twitching with the shadow question: Whatever will become of me?


  1. I agree - what a great title. Maybe I'll read it.

  2. What a fantastic title! The stories sound amazing too.


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