Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell








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Karen Russell’s debut collection of short stories titled, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, presents an imaginative and creative voice that is unlike that of any other writer I’ve read. Russell is about 25 years old, and the vitality of her voice, and the lack of limitations on her definition of the world shows in most of these stories. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of the story titled, “Haunting Olivia,” pp. 26-31:


My brother Wallow has been kicking around Gannon’s Boat Graveyard for more than an hour, too embarrassed to admit that he doesn’t see any ghosts. Instead, he slaps at the ocean with jilted fury. Curse words come piping out of his snorkel. He keeps pausing to readjust the diabolical goggles.

The diabolical goggles were designed for little girls. They are pink, with a floral snorkel attached to the side. They have scratchproof lenses and an adjustable band. Wallow says that we are going to use them to find our dead sister, Olivia.

My brother and I have been making midnight scavenging trips to Gannon’s all summer. It’s a watery junkyard, a place where people pay to abandon their old boats. Gannon, the grizzled, tattooed undertaker, tows wrecked ships into his marina. Battered sailboats and listing skiffs, yachts with stu­pid names—Knot at Work and Sail-la- Vie—the paint peeling from their puns. They sink beneath the water in slow incre­ments, covered with rot and barnacles. Their masts jut out at weird angles. The marina is an open, easy grave to rob. We ride our bikes along the rock wall, coasting quietly past Gan­non’s tin shack, and hop off at the derelict pier. Then we creep down to the ladder, jump onto the nearest boat, and loot.

It’s dubious booty. We mostly find stuff with no resale value: soggy flares and UHF radios, a one-eyed cat yowling on a dinghy. But the goggles are a first. We found them float­ing in a live-bait tank, deep in the cabin of La Calavera, a swamped Largo schooner. We’d pushed our way through a small hole in the prow. Inside, the cabin was rank and flooded. There was no bait living in that tank, just the gog­gles and a foamy liquid the color of root beer. I dared Wal­low to put the goggles on and stick his head in it. I didn’t actually expect him to find anything; Ijust wanted to laugh at Wallow in the pink goggles, bobbing for diseases. But when he surfaced, tearing at the goggles, he told me that he’d seen the orange, unholy light of a fish ghost. Several, in fact, a school of ghoulish mullet.

“They looked just like regular baitfish, bro,” Wallow said. “Only deader.” I told my brother that I was familiar with the definition of a ghost. Not that I believed a word of it, you understand.

Now Wallow is trying the goggles out in the marina, to see if his vision extends beyond the tank. I’m dangling my legs over the edge of the pier, half expecting something to grab me and pull me under.

“Wallow! You see anything phantasmic yet?”

“Nothing,” he bubbles morosely through the snorkel. “I can’t see a thing.”

I’m not surprised. The water in the boat basin is a cloudy mess. But I’m impressed by Wallow’s one-armed doggy paddle.

Wallow shouldn’t be swimming at all. Last Thursday, he slipped on one of the banana peels that Granana leaves around the house. I know. I didn’t think it could happen out­side of cartoons, either. Now his right arm is in a plaster cast, and in order to enter the water he has to hold it above his head. It looks like he’s riding an aquatic unicycle. That buoyancy, it’s unexpected. On land, Wallow’s a loutish kid. He bulldozes whatever gets in his path: baby strollers, wid­owers, me.

For brothers, Wallow and I look nothing alike. I’ve got Dad’s blond hair and blue eyes, his embraceably lanky phy­sique. Olivia was equally Heartland, apple cheeks and unnerv­ingly white teeth. Not Wallow. He’s got this dental affliction that gives him a tusky, warthog grin. He wears his hair in a greased pompadour and has a thick pelt of back hair. There’s no accounting for it. Dad jokes that our mom must have had dalliances with a Minotaur.

Wallow is not Wallow’s real name, of course. His real name is Waldo Swallow. Just like I’m Timothy Sparrow and Olivia was—is—Olivia Lark. Our parents used to be bird enthusiasts. That’s how they met: Dad spotted my mother on a bird-watching tour of the swamp, her beauty magnified by his lOx binoculars. Dad says that by the time he lowered them the spoonbills he’d been trying to see had scattered, and he was in love. When Wallow and I were very young, they used to take us on their creepy bird excursions, kayaking down island canals, spying on blue herons and coots. These days, they’re not enthusiastic about much, feathered or other­wise. They leave us with Granana for months at a time.

Shortly after Olivia’s death, my parents started travel­ing regularly in the Third World. No children allowed. Granana lives on the other side of the island. She’s eighty-four, I’m twelve, and Wallow’s fourteen, so it’s a little ambiguous as to who’s babysitting whom. This particular summer, our parents are in São Paulo. They send us postcards of bullet-pocked favelas and flaming hillocks of trash. “GLAD YOU’RE NOT HERE! xoxo, the ‘Rents.” I guess the idea is that all the misery makes their marital problems seem petty and inconsequential.

“Hey!” Wallow is directly below me, clutching the rails of the ladder. “Move over.”

He climbs up and heaves his big body onto the pier. Defeat puddles all around him. Behind the diabolical gog­gles, his eyes narrow into slits.

“Did you see them?”

Wallow just grunts. “Here.” He wrestles the lady-goggles off his face and thrusts them at me. “I can’t swim with this cast, and these bitches are too small for my skull. You try them.”

I sigh and strip off my pajamas, bobbling before him. The elastic band of the goggles bites into the back of my head. Somehow, wearing them makes me feel even more naked. My penis is curling up in the salt air like a small pink snail. Wallow points and laughs.

“Sure you don’t want to try again?” I ask him. From the edge of the pier, the ocean looks dark and unfamiliar, like the liquid shadow of something truly awful. “Try again, Wallow. Maybe it’s just taking a while for your eyes to adjust. . . .”

Wallow holds a finger to his lips. He points behind me. Boats are creaking in the wind, waves slap against the pil­ings, and then I hear it, too, the distinct thunk of boots on wood. Someone is walking down the pier. We can see the tip of a lit cigarette, suspended in the dark. We hear a man’s gar­gly cough.

“Looking for buried treasure, boys?” Gannon laughs. He keeps walking towards us. “You know, the court still consid­ers it trespassing, be it land or sea.” Then he recognizes Wal­low. He lets out the low, mournful whistle that all the grown-ups on the island use to identify us now.

“Oh, son. Don’t tell me you’re out here looking for. . .”

“My dead sister?” Wallow asks with terrifying cheer. “Good guess!”

“You’re not going to find her in my marina, boys.”

In the dark, Gannon is a huge stencil of a man, wisps of smoke curling from his nostrils. There is a long, pulsing silence, during which Wallow stares at him, squaring his jaw. Then Gannon shrugs. He stubs out his cigarette and shuffles back towards the shore.

“All right, bro,” Wallow says. “It’s go time.” He takes my elbow and gentles me down the planks with such tender­ness that I am suddenly very afraid. But there’s no sense mak­ing the plunge slow and unbearable. I take a running leap down the pier— “Ayyyyiii!”

—and launch over the water. It’s my favorite moment: when I’m one toe away from flight and my body takes over. The choice is made, but the consequence is still just an inky shimmer beneath me. And I’m flying, I’m rushing to meet my own reflection—Gah!

Then comes the less beautiful moment when I’m up to my eyeballs in tar water, and the goggles fill with stinging brine. And, for what seems like a very long time, I can’t see anything at all, dead or alive.

When my vision starts to clear, I see a milky, melting light moving swiftly above the ocean floor. Drowned moon­beams, I think at first. Only there is no moon tonight.


If you’re willing to give a young author a try, I suggest Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home.


Steve Hopkins, November 20, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the December 2006 issue of Executive Times


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