St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves - Karen Russell
I had been hearing about this book here and there, and finally picked it up over a year ago. When Stephen King said that Swamplandia!, Russell's new book, was one of the anticipated books of the year, I thought I'd better go back and read her first book. I also love the title. I love wolves, and it's an irresistible title.
St Lucy's Home For Girls Raised by Wolves is a book of short stories, and they are fantasy in the way that is fabulous, in the old original sense of fabulous being strange and wild and wonderful. Almost all the stories are set in Florida, in and around the water or the forest or the swamp. The two that are not, From Children's Reminiscences of the Westward Migration, and Accident Brief, Occurrence # 00/422, are set in the prairies/desert (Children's Reminiscences) and the Arctic somewhere (Accident Brief). All the stories feature young people, usually around 8 or 10 or 12, who are on the cusp of reaching for the adult world, not quite knowing what they are missing, but they are missing it, even as they explore childhood and the darkness around them. Almost every story features loss, absent parents, mothers who abandon their children to make a living in the way that the very poor do. These aren't pretty people, neither are they terrifically bad - they are children and the freaky adults they find themselves surrounded with. If I had to describe the theme of this book, it would be what life would be like if it were a circus - that extraordinarily twilight zone feeling that we get going to the circus, where certainly I want to laugh at the clowns, but at the same time I'm aware there are people underneath and are they happy? do they want to be laughed at? (of course they do, but I always worry about what people are really feeling, and not what they are pretending to the world.)This collection of stories is like looking through a fun house mirror, where the carnival aspects of childhood get twisted in ways we know are, even though they shouldn't be. They are gothic without any of the nonsense about death - surreal stories, almost. And fascinating. I really enjoyed this collection.
I love Russells' flights of fancy, her awareness of nature and the children being the ones taking the time to see the stars and trees and being intimately connected with life around them, before adulthood comes to sweep them away. There are ghosts and convicts and dream camps (I wish I could go to that one!), a minotaur as a father, and gator-wrestling Ava Wrestles the Alligator, which the new book Swamplandia! is set in the same swampland attraction as the short story is. One of my favourite quotes is on my sidebar; "Haunting Olivia" is one of my favourite stories in this collection. It's told by the older brother who searches endlessly for her in the ocean, hoping to find her ghost among the ghosts of all the other creatures that died, but even when she seemingly contacts him, he still can't find her. That sense of loss, of searching for something gone, permeates all the stories in this book. Olivia was sliding down the sand on the back of a very huge crab sled and slid out into the waves, but the tide was going out and the boys didn't wait around to see her come back in. Just like in real life, tragedy and loss, big changes and small. "St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" is about werewolves who are taken by nuns to be raised to be like humans. It's very good, especially as the girls learn how to not think like pack, and how they lose their sense of connectedness when they do that. Who says being human is the highest realization? Only humans do. These stories are weird and wonderful, like the old time circuses and men calling, "Step right up! See the Bearded woman! One night only!" Like Ray Bradbury if he had grown up in Florida, there is a sense of him in her writing. I highly recommend this book. 4.5/5
The Limits of Enchantment - Graham Joyce
I love this novel. It's the story of Fern Cullen, a young woman who lives with her mother in a small village in 1966 England. Mammy Cullen is a midwife, but not of the new school of hospital approved midwives. She is old-school. She knows the herbs and small magics that midwives traditionally know since women began having babies and needed help giving birth. She might be a witch, she might not. And Fern is on the cusp of asking what she wants to do with her life. Then Mammy is roughed up by some men - really, just knocked over roughly - and she gets weaker and ends up in the hospital. Fern has to contend with a group of hippies who move into the neighborhood, the advances of Arthur, and deciding if she wants to carry on her mother's work. She has the gift, but before she does more than take a few steps for the future, the local gentry who own the land decide she must move out because they are in arrears. And The Limits of Enchantment is about how Fern discovers who are her friends, and who isn't, and how she learns to ask and to listen and to judge on her own.
The Limits of Enchantment is written from Fern's point of view. She is engaging and frank, seeing through most people around her. But she is young, and she has to learn that she can't practice her midwifery without the support of the community around her, and when they initially don't respond to her requests for help, she faces being forced to leave. How she fights back and how the community rallies around her, is particularly funny and tender.
This is a really enjoyable book. Fern is a strong character as is Mammy. All the characters are interesting and idiosyncratic - they are really vividly drawn. I liked the setting - 1966, a small village, and I especially liked the midwife and magical aspects of the story. I highly recommend this book, especially to anyone interested in folklore and herbal lore, and changing society. 5/5