Russell’s debut is full of wild fables

Every so often a truly talented and original voice emerges from America’s literary ranks. One such voice is that of 25-year-old Florida native Karen Russell.

Russell debuts with a refreshingly creative and astoundingly mature collection of stories entitled “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.”From the southern Florida swamps of her childhood to the craggy peaks of invented island kingdoms, Russell leads her characters – a scraggly band of lovable but lonesome oddballs – on a tour de force of human nature and real-world ethics.

Narrated primarily by children, the 10 stories take place in a fantastic and surreal world where Minotaurs and other mythical creatures walk side-by-side with man.

Surprisingly, the mystical world Russell created ends up looking very similar to our own. A pubescent detective with a remarkable ability to predict the past, an overweight outcast stuck inside of a massive conch shell, a floating retirement home where the residents encourage juvenile delinquency and a pack of teenage girls rescued from their werewolf parents to be reeducated by nuns are just a few scenarios invented by Russell.

One of her characters says Russell “has entire kingdoms inside of her.” The ideas behind her stories are marked by a creativity and originality that has been unnoticeable in American literature for decades.Russell pens her fantastic tales in a quintessential southern style.

Stylistically her writing is nearly flawless, populated by sly turns of phrase and original takes on hackneyed concepts.

“Everybody wants to go home,” writes Russell in “Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration,” “and no one can agree on where that is anymore.” Most striking is Russell’s ability to capture the apprehensive innocence and accidental
insight of children on the threshold of maturity. Meditating on friendship, loss, family and growing up, the centralized theme of her stories is “coming-of-age.”

The children who narrate her work stand at the gateway of adulthood, poised, but hesitant, to enter. Russell seems to have kept one foot on either side of that fence, still able to cuttingly mark on the realities of adulthood with a keen, youthful insight.

“I guess that’s what growing up means, at least according to the publishing industry,” writes Russell in “The Star-Gazer’s Log of Summer-Time Crime.”

“Phosphorescence fades to black and white, and facts cease to be fun.” For so many promising young writers, this axiom holds true, as seeming talent slowly dims into gray monotony. But if Russell is able to fulfill only a fraction of the promise demonstrated in “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” the world of American letters will be all the better for many years to come.

Peter Chomko can be reached at

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