Wednesday, June 15

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell
reviewed by Sally Partridge (writer)

I have a dedicated shelf of favourite reads that includes among others Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Sarah Lotz’ Pompidou Posse and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, but St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves tops the list and is something I can pick up again and again and again. It’s haunting, and beautifully written and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

To say that someone was raised by wolves implies that they had little or no adult supervision growing up. In the nineties, we called them Latchkey Kids – literally meaning that after school unsupervised kids would have to let themselves in to the house with a spare key when there was no-one home. Being raised by wolves can have a profound effect on a person. You can develop a maturity not present in others your age, or seek parental nurturing elsewhere – in other adults, and more often than not, in older or more dominant children ready to steer you up the wrong path. It can also result in you having to learn some very hard lessons about life, much earlier than you need to.

Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is an anthology of ten stories about children left to fend for themselves in an imagined fantastical America of an almost childish imagining.

It’s an indulgent, magically escapist read with a shadowy realism that transports the reader into the lives of the unfortunates living between its pages. Each story is deliciously imaginative, but comes with a sting in the tail that often ends the story on a bitter note.

  • In Ava Wrestles the Alligator, two young girls are left alone in their grandfather’s bayou theme park, Swamplandia! surrounded by alligator infested swamps.. Ava believes in her mentally handicapped sister’s made-up stories wholeheartedly, and it’s this childish naïveté that sees her lose her childhood in the worst way possible.
  • In Haunting Olivia, two brothers spend their days and nights riding giant sea turtle shells around an island, searching the dark haunted waters for the ghost of their little sister who died whilst under their care. It’s a tragic story of loss, made all the more poignant by the fact that the brothers use the imaginary maps that their sister drew of the island, to try and find her.
  • In Z.Z’s Sleep Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers we meet Elijah who sees the past in his dreams. It was because of this that his parents sent him to a summer camp for children suffering from dream disorders. There he meets Ogilvy, the only other kid that shares his disorder and falls in love with Emma, the hopeless insomniac.
  • In The Star-Gazer’s Log of Summer-Time Crime junior astrologist Oliver really wants to be part of the popular crowd. A chance encounter on the beach makes this dream a reality but Oliver soon discovers that being popular can sometimes mean being cruel to others, and breaking the law.
  • From Children’s Reminiscences of the Western Migration is truly fantastical, yet provides the most chilling insight into the cruel nature of humanity. Set in the wild prospecting age of America, Jacob’s family decide to uproot and follow the wagon trail west to seek out greener pastures. The fantastical comes in the form of Jacob’s father, who is a mythical Minotaur, who as the journey progresses becomes the symbol for every prospector’s misfortune.
  • In Lady Yeti and the Palace of the Artificial Snows a local ice rink becomes the focus of one boy’s hatred after he discovers that his father (and indeed most of the townspeople) uses the blizzard disco to mask their infidelity. Ice skating monkeys add an air of the impossible to this story of broken homes.
  • The City of Shells is an Easter Island sort of place framed by eerie giant conch shells. During a school trip to the island best friends Lillith and Laramie look for affection in two different but equally disturbing places. Laramie takes her conquests into the giant shells as a way of getting back at her father while fatherless Lillith discovers a twisted camaraderie with the island’s janitor during a storm.
  • In Out to Sea we meet Ava from the first story’s grandfather. It is years later, and grandpa Sawtooth is living out the rest of his days on a houseboat in the Out-to-Sea retirement community. He discovers a new lust for life after juvenile delinquent and kleptomaniac Augie has to visit him as part of her court ordered community service.
  • Accident Brief, Occurrence #00/422 tells the tale of a boy descended from pirates. Tek is a member of the Waitiki Valley Boys Choir that makes the annual pilgrimage to the Aokeora Glacier to sing down an avalanche. He hates the ritual, his stepfather, his choirmaster, and forms an unlikely alliance with Rangi, a self-inflicted mute that hates the world more than he does.
  • The title story St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves takes the old adage literally and deals with a nunnery devoted to the education and sophistication of girls born to werewolves. At St Lucy’s, were-children are taught to speak English, wear shoes and mind their manners. It’s a frightening allegory on the loss of childhood, and sums up neatly the theme of the anthology, in a way that will stay with the reader for days after.
The novel was first recommended to me by a friend with an individual taste for off-beat and unconventional literature. But I only picked it up years after, while waiting to meet a friend in a bookstore. As a child raised by wolves myself, I was immediately drawn to the title, and after the first line I was hooked. Russell attacks her theme with an expert grasp of language and a flair for the fantastic. Its small wonder the author was picked as one of Granta’s best young American novelists and New York Magazine’s 25 people to watch under 25.

Get it, and devour it.

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