Difficulties of youth and adolescence are the themes of Karen Russell’s unusual collection of short stories. Many of them are set in the Florida Everglades among bizarre and tacky theme parks or tourist destinations, where children sled through the sand on crab shells or visit enormous conches.
The first story, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” provides an introduction to the two sisters who are more fully developed in Russell’s later novel Swamplandia! Abandoned momentarily at their Everglades theme park home, Ava has a murky encounter with the Bird Man and tries to rescue her sister Osceola from her ghost lover. That story is expanded in the novel, which I really enjoyed.
Although certainly all are unusual, some of the stories are more bizarre than others. In “from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration,” a 19th century family makes a difficult crossing west, their wagon pulled by their father, the Minotaur. In the title story, human children of werewolves are sent away to be raised by nuns so that they can have a better life than their parents.
Russell’s stories are at once peculiar and oddly touching, full of young misfits who are even more out of place than all adolescents think they are. At times funny, such as the descriptions of the wolf-girls’ canine behavior when trying to adjust to their new school, the stories all reverberate with longing. Russell’s writing is brilliantly fierce and original, sparked by her own peculiar vision.
A few of the stories felt to me as if the author was just trying to think of the strangest ideas possible, and she almost lost me in “Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows.” But ultimately, I enjoyed the stories, although I prefer the more developed characters and plot of Swamplandia!