Published by Vintage on Sept. 2006
Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
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Karen Russell’s debut is a stunning, imaginative collection of ten short stories, including the piece that grew to become Swamplandia!, a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize.
Similarly to Swamplandia!, the stories in this collection have a whimsical feel and touches of magical realism. In the title story, a pack of girls are taken from their werewolf parents to be re-educated and become proper, civilized young women. Other stories feature an over-night camp for children with sleep disorders, where campers are subject to a social hierarchy in which sleep apneics and somnambulists are at the top and narcoleptics and incontinents are at the bottom; a young pioneer on the wagon train westward, whose minotaur father pulls the family’s wagon; and a reluctant member of the Waitiki Valley Boys Choir, who becomes the victim of disaster while flying up to a glacier to sing the snows down.
One of my favorite stories was “The City of Shells,” in which a fifth-grade girl, cruelly nicknamed Big Red by her classmates, visits The City of Shells, an attraction featuring dozens of Precambrian Giant Conchs set upright to look like salt-bleached skyscrapers. When no one is looking, she slips inside one of the conchs, only to realize that she can’t get back out. This story is an emotional look at childhood innocence, the pain of feeling like an outsider, and the confusion of a young girl grappling with the sexual world around her, which she isn’t ready to understand.
I also really loved “Haunting Olivia,” a story about two brothers searching the ocean for their sister, who went missing when the empty giant crab shell on which she was sledding down the dunes whisked her far out into the water. The boys spend their nights circling the island with a pair of snorkeling goggles that show ghost fish, looking for their sister and the mystical Glowworm Grotto. It’s a haunting story about the tension between guilt over losing their sister and fear of actually finding her.
Russell’s writing is absolutely gorgeous; it’s vibrant and sparkling, and if I hadn’t gotten my copy of this book from the library, I probably would have worn out a pen underlining all of the beautiful sentences that flow across the pages.
“It’s still dark out, the palest smattering of stars in the sky. I swing along the trapeze ropes of the docked boats, dizzy with sleep, the only human awake for miles. Swamp dawns feel like bearing witness to a quiet apocalypse. Infinity comes lapping over, concentric circles on still water. It’s otherworldly, a river of grass, and a red needle of light on the horizon.”
The stories in this collection are highly original and incredibly imaginative. Many of them deal with the innocence, vulnerability, and emotional needs of children, and they often take place in a world that seems to be tilted a few degrees off from ours. I really liked this book, and I can’t wait to see how Russell progresses in her recently released short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove.