Karen Russell likes kids. She likes them to be lost, hurried, confused, afraid. Have you read Swamplandia!? In that story, our heroine is Ava, proud member of the Bigtree clan, brave alligator wrestler and frightened little girl. Here, Russell offers ten stories that include similar themes. And like Swamplandia!, (a book I really, really loved), Russell deftly and somewhat subtly shimmies between the real world and fantasy. I think a mark of good fantasy is that when you read it, you don’t think “this some good fantasy! what a weird, wacky world we are visiting!” (or, alternately, “what the hell is going on?”). Instead, you think about the characters and the emotions that drive the story, accepting the constructed world appreciatively. Russell hits that nail on the head.
There are ten stories here, and I won’t go into all of them. The first, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” is what led to Swamplandia!, though it differs a bit. But we are again treated to a muddy world, filled with ghosts and lizards and a man wearing feathers. In the end, Ava has to wrestle a lot more than a silly alligator. The books title comes from the last story in the book. Here we find young girls, pulled away from their werewolf parents (that affliction skips a generation) and put in reform school. They must learn to be bipedal, to stop urinating everywhere, to stop chewing. Can they truly adapt? You know what they say—home is where the heart is. The second story is my favorite. Two brothers, mourning the loss of their little sister, find a pair of swimming goggles that allow them to see all the ghosts under the sea. It’s heart-wrenching and magical, full of glorious images.
Ideas and images like this abound: singing an avalanche down from a glacier, a minotaur father pulling his family’s wagon westward, lupine girls running, howling, biting. There are monkeys on ice skates, an old woman feeding stingrays instead of ducks, and a mentally-disabled man, dancing on the beach in Christmas lights and tinfoil, pretending to be the moon. Russell paints all these images with flair, and these seemingly odd moments fit right in and carry us through stories that, at the core, are about desperation, confusion, wonder, and love.
One more thing to note is the setting. Russell connects a handful of these stories through place (and sometimes through people). The ones that share a setting take place in Florida. We see the same motel, the oddball amusement parks, mangroves, swamp, beach. The Bigtree clan. The sea feels ever-present, hauntingly so at times. The stories set elsewhere, most notably “from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration,” feel a tad disconnected (to me at least), but Russell writes with such raw skill that it’s impossible to feel lost for much more than a sentence.
A collection of stories is a good way to mix it up after reading a lot of novels, and it’s pretty nice to read while involved in other books. I love a good short story (it’s what I struggle to write myself sometimes) and I’m really glad this is the book of them I chose. I can’t wait for her new collection (Vampires in the Lemon Grove). It comes out sometime in 2013 I believe; check it out.