As most of the stories in Karen Russell's madcap yet wistful debut collection attest, the Florida Everglades ooze decay. Gators prowl among "oily sinkholes, buried stumps, salt nettles," and stingrays feed in a "boneless dance of empty appetite." Even man-made structures bear the sediment of years gone by. A boy who sneaks into a run-down skating rink to spy on grown-ups notes the "homey dilapidation" of the snack bar: "split cushions, ancient popcorn on the tables, the flickering blue and violet bulbs." This is a world out of time.
Yet Russell also locks many of her characters in adolescence, a period of heightened immediacy. For the most part, adults are absent while the children stagger around in a hothouse closeness with others of their kind, floating in the pubescent "now." Russell writes almost all the stories in St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves in the present tense. So even if the children dream of the bubonic plague, Mount Vesuvius, and other past catastrophes, as Elijah does in "Z.Z.'s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers," they still struggle with the "empty-belly loneliness" of their current limbo.
"Languidge," says one character, "is what separates us from the animals." Russell's precocious narrators gorge themselves on big words and "fun facts" about tides and astronomy. The author, like her characters, delights in verbal play, often inventing her own words—such as the compound adjectives lint-furred, gosling-soft, salt-preened, and basketball-tall. Her theme-park details evoke George Saunders, and her descriptions of lush, decadent flora echo Joy Williams. But Russell's antic sensibility above all recalls cartoons; her imagination is a combustible, pinwheeling thing, and it animates these coming-of-age vignettes with a ferocious absurdity.
The accounts of isolated naïfs adrift in the moldering Everglades blur together at times, but Russell occasionally permits her characters to leave the fertile swamp rot for stark glaciers or the "wide, roiling prairie [that] announced itself in liquid glimpses, apocalyptic and familiar." And in some stories, the separation between human and animal actually disappears. The young narrator of "Children's Reminiscences of the Westward Migration" is the human son of a minotaur. The final, titular story follows a pack of girls raised by wolves and now residing at a finishing school run by nuns who attempt to domesticate the feral youngsters. These, in particular, are strange, lingering tales—yet less for their inventive flourishes than for their ability to capture a kind of discomfiting fear that comes with adulthood; the protagonists are propelled out of the adolescent here-and-now into the world beyond. Both stories are marked by an awareness of the passage of time and the tendency toward betrayal—of oneself and of those one loves. These are also the only two stories in the collection that Russell writes in the past tense, and they capture the plight of people who must learn to bear the weight of "then" as well as that of the inexorable future.