Karen Russell’s Home for Girls Raised by Words

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, but mostly for school. When my summer Shakespeare class ended, I was glad to dive back into the luxury of pleasure reading. I really should have gotten a head start on reading for the fall semester, but I just couldn’t resist the unnervingly inviting world of the strangeness of Southern Florida that Karen Russell conjures in her collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.

Her concepts are exciting and exotic – a stonehenge-like construction of giant shells, a minotaur pulling his family’s covered wagon across America, and a boarding school that trains the daughters of werewolves to act civilized, to name a few. Through these fascinating plots, Russell manages to craft stories that operate around a conceit, yet focus just as strongly on characterization and ambiance. An unsettling sense of ominous mystery hums through the pages of all the stories in this collection. Each story captures the feeling that the world is not what it seems,  it’s ugly and bafflingly mysterious, but that’s just how it is, and those dark and strange things are sometimes just as beautiful as they are terrifying.

Though the setting, theme, and characterization of Russell’s stories are nearly perfect, the language itself sometimes fails to rise to the level of her imagination. This is her first book, so it’s not expected to be perfect, but the language was often distracting. Overall, it often feels overworked, as if she squeezed her story’s into some mold that she thought they should conform to, hoping they would come out whimsical and off-beat. This means a lot of nouns as verbs, an abundance of fabricated-hyphenated adjectives, proper nouns ending in exclamation points! (which I thought was clever as the title of her first novel, Swamplandia! but gets old fast when it is used to punctuate the name of every restaraunt, book, and sometimes even character names). Another distracting characteristic of these stories is that almost all of them focus on children, yet they often use large, clunky words that pull sentences apart and momentarily ripped me from the stories.

These flaws, or what I perceived as flaws, were a little distracting, yet the stories themselves were so rich and fascinating that they didn’t really matter. Russell is creating a sort of modern mythology, twisting the world around to make it feel more real and resonant. All in all, these stories are unique and haunting, they are alive and magical, and they should be read and experienced as they cling to the canyons of the brain like the kind of nightmares that are more fascinating than frightening.


Is it true that originality is dead?

Or maybe we’ve just heard it so many times that we stop trying to find new and exciting things within ourselves. I’ve always been frustrated by the idea of originality being dead, not because it means that my ideas aren’t unique or creative, but because it gives us the excuse to conform. This concept makes artists, writers, and musicians censor their creativity, edit their instincts until they become conventional reproductions.

A few years ago I read an interview with Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne  that has been on my mind ever since. I’m sure I’m not getting this right, but he basically said that his philosophy of creation is: There’s a lot of great music out there already, so I’m going to push my creativity to its limits, always trying new things. If I succeed, I’ve created something new and unique. And if my experimental projects fail, the world hasn’t lost anything, because there is already so much great music out there.

Wayne Coyne is definitely original, there’s no questions about that. He started out as a manager at KFC and is now a rockstar who performs around the world with extravagant lightshows and costumes. But I think his brilliance comes from his ability to cast his ego aside and say: Look, I don’t want to be a musician if that means writing the same songs over and over again, no matter how famous it makes me. I’m willing to risk my reputation and my future for the opportunity to create something fresh and exciting to contribute to the world.