The collection of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell presents tales narrated by adolescents that presents realistic detail of the miraculous phantasmagoric existence. Each story is infused with fantasy – dating of ghosts and humans in “Ava Wrestles the Alligator”, a song describing his Minotaur father in “Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration”, pack of girls raised by wolves in “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”, two brothers searching for their dead sister in “Haunting Olivia” etc. – that questions the mundane existence of reality and eventually recreates it.
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In most of the stories, Russell, bridging the gap between imagination and memories with actuality, draws the connection that creates the narrative memory or the felt reality. Most of the stories succinctly relate to the pride of the modern and scientific community, to denounce the metaphysical world of life and death, through the deft use of magic and realism. The aim of the paper is to understand the prevalence of reality and fantasy in the narrative structure of the stories by Karen Russell and understand the reason behind the creation of such surrealistic text.
Roland Barthes argues that the aim of the text written by an author is not to present the reality to the readers but to signify it (147). When text and language signify the extreme events, the text ends up recreating, rather than making a blatant imitation of the reality. Usually, the images presented in such literature may present the “real” veracity rather than a surreal image, infused with imagination and memory.
Barthes argues that such representative text, and not mimesis of reality, has the power to make sense of the realism. A similar view has been presented by Eugene Arva who believes that the text in magical reality “create rather than reflect reality” and usually bears a “resemblance to the one we already know” (80). The reason for the creation of this fused reality is the predominance of “experience over knowledge” such that, the reason does not distort the concept of reality, and that is why the narrators of such stories often, are “children or immature adults” (Arva 80).
I believe the stories of Russell are deliberately infused with fictional illusions in order to disorient the readers, create greater awareness of their world, and strengthen their identity. In will study the presence and use of fantasy and reality in two of Russell’s stories, “Haunting Olivia” and “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”, in order to gauge the postmodernist tool of magical realism in her texts. The paper will first address the question of how Russell creates the fusion of fantasy and reality in her stories then move on to comprehend the reason for her deliberate mix of magical realism.
Realism infused with magic
The story of “Haunting Olivia” shows the adventures of two brothers who search for their sister, Olivia, who died in the ocean in a springtime high tide, and her body was never recovered. The story is narrated by one of the brothers of Olivia who is twelve years of age. The magical element of the story lies in the discovery of a magical swimming goggle by the brothers in a junkyard beside the seashore, through which you could see ghosts.
In one of their childish experiments, the narrator comes across a school of shrimps that wrote a name, by means of an extraordinary aquatic drill, of a cave that their sister had mapped when she was alive. This makes the elder brother, Wallow, and the narrator submerges in an aquatic adventure to find the cave named Glowworm Grotto. Eventually, the brothers find the cave but reality strikes them and they do not find Olivia or her ghost. Instead, a realization dawns on the narrator that Olivia may be present “everywhere” (Russell, “Haunting” 26).
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“St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” is a satirical story about a pack of girls raised by wolf parents who were brought to a convent by the nuns of St. Lucy’s, in order to acclimatize them in order to make them more human, so that they could bridge the cultural gap between that of wolves and the humans. Here too the narrator is one of the girls, an adolescent. The story relates to the various experiences of the girls as they go through a five-point program that aims at teaching the werewolf-sisters human mannerism and conduct.
The girls, at the end of the five-step program, more closely resembled humans and became less emotional towards the “pack” (Russell, “St. Lucy’s” 248). At the end of the fifth stage, the narrator goes to visit their parents, back to the cave, which was once, their home seems unfamiliar and alien. The narrator ends the story with an ironic statement that she was “home” but also adds that it was her first “human lie” (Russell, “St. Lucy’s” 252).
Both the stories are infused with wild imagination with the real world. The connection between the real and the imaginary is established through intertextuality, or the presence of an authoritative text that establishes the reality, as the map drawn by Olivia in “Haunting” and the book of Jesuits in “St. Lucy’s”. The border between fantasy and reality is completely diffused.
The main theme of “Haunting” is the realization of the two brothers with the death of their sister. The accidental death of Olivia had left the brothers in-search of closure. As they never found her dead body, there was always a hope that lingered in their mind. The human mind is often unable to accept the reality of death. It is through the acceptance of the magical, the fantastic, that we come to realize the realism of death. Russell adopted magical realism of adolescent imagination and illusion to provide a way for looking for closure for the two brothers. To find the cave had become the reason for survival for Wallow and the narrator that summer.
Thus, Russell skillfully merged the scientific objectifying brother, the narrator of the story, to be the one to find the cave, and actually enter it. The narrator comes to terms with the realization that Olivia was not dead, but had transcended to a metaphysical existence that the rational modern man rejected.
Intertextuality in “St. Lucy’s” through the presence of the excerpts from the “Jesuit’s Handbook on Lycanthrope Culture Shock” creates a seamless amalgamation of the realistic text on cross-cultural adaption and the highly unrealistic world of the human children of wolves. Russell makes a deliberate attempt to establish the imaginary world of the werewolves through direct quotes from the epigraph.
The readers, who do not know the meaning of the word Lycanthrope (which means werewolves), remain completely unaware of the fusion of the imaginary book into this unrealistic situation. This text on cultural acclimatization is objectified as a social treaty to induce the girls into the humanized institution. However, Russell deftly uses linguistic strategies (use of the word Lycanthrope) of the magical world to undermine the treatise.
One of the primary characters of a magical realist story is its fantastic images, which are vivid and emotionally charged, which transcends the readers to a surrealist world that accustoms them to horror in the past of the narrator’s/protagonist’s life (Arva 75). Thus, the aim of the author in such cases is to recreate the reality that has all the essential elements of the real emotions. Such elements of surrealistic images have been observed in the case of “Haunting”. The two brothers were unable to internalize the death of their sister as the narrator points out that to their father, and even probably to Wallow.
The inability to recover Olivia’s dead body was more shocking than the death itself: “For some reason, this hit… harder than Olivia’s death itself … the fact that we had nothing to bury” (Russell, “Haunting” 15). Wallow’s desire for closure becomes apparent in his wish to find the cave, and eventually, Olivia’s a ghost/dead-body. Through the narrator we come to know that Wallow just wanted to tell her, “I’m sorry” (Russell, “Haunting” 21). Thus, Wallow’s guilt feeling was the trauma that he wanted to overcome through his acceptance of Olivia’s imaginary world.
The imagery used in magical realistic stories breaks the image of fantasy by a deliberate infusion of over realistic images of objects and descriptions. In both “Haunting” and “St. Lucy’s” the narrator uses such realistic description of images – such as “paint peeling from their puns”, “covered with rot and barnacles”, “UHF radios” (Russell, “Haunting”, 2), “pumpkin muffin”, “black suitcase”, “balding children’s book author” (Russell, “St. Lucy’s” 249-52) – that deliberately substitutes the fictional felt reality of the stories for an extremely realistic event. Thus, the stories adopt the mode of postmodernist fiction that excels in the art of breaking the fantasy and recreating it through a thorough play of words. The stories create an ontological foreground for the magical fantasy, which they skillfully dilute using the images of the fictional, magical world.
The narrators of the stories infused with magical realism usually have childlike or young narrators who have an immature, naïve view of life (Arva 80). Russell’s narrators in both the stories are adolescents, who are not yet cynical about the world around them. It is easier for them to accept the surreal events through which they willfully engage. The child-narrators of “St. Lucy’s” and “Haunting” express their unadulterated emotions to describe both the reality and the fictional without any judgment.
Nevertheless, there is always an element of tragedy and sadness in their story. These children live almost all alone without any parental supervision, care, and love. In both the stories, the children are living away from their parents and somehow cannot be at “home”. The allusion to “home” is one of the central themes of both stories. In “Haunting”, the narrator describes Olivia’s “intense bout of homesickness” as “distressing” for she used to shout in the middle of the night, “I wanna go home” (Russell, “Haunting” 11).
The narrator was unable to understand the imaginative mind of his eight-year-old sister who believed the world of her fantasy as “home” and not the mundane wall of brick and mortar. Contradictorily, in “St. Lucy’s”, Claudette, the narrator returns to the cave of her parents and admit to lying when she says, “I’m home” (Russell, “St. Lucy’s” 252).
The blurring of the border between real and fictional “home” in the stories creates a question in the mind of the readers about the veracity of family and human life. In “Haunting”, Russell shows modern parents leaving on expeditions where they cannot take their children while in “St. Lucy’s” she shows how greater adaptability to the human race made the werewolf-sisters less emotionally attached to each other.
Thus, through these unrealistic depictions of a magical and fantastic world, Russell creates the reality to the readers i.e. the individualistic self-centeredness of the human world. The trauma that the characters face in the stories is sometimes real while at other times are magical, however, they create an immediate appeal to the readers as the inherent reason behind the trauma are emotionally charged.
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That is why Russell creates the unrealistic world of the werewolves and the magical cave of the dead to ensure that the readers confirm their inner inhibitions and emotions. Through the experiences of the brothers and the werewolf-sisters face, Russell represents the traumas of the modern age that are disintegrating family, emotional detachment, death, and above all inability to love. Disassociation and separateness between the brothers and the sisters – through the description of ‘otherness’ in Wallow by the narrator in “Haunting” and the breaking of the emotional and metal bonding between the werewolf-sisters in “St. Lucy’s” – depicts an increasing gap that is creeping within relationships.
The indifference with which Granana sees Olivia’s death is explained as a reason for years of losing loved ones to childbirth, war, and depression (Russell, “Haunting” 14). Thus, her trauma makes the readers realize the reason for her indifference and inability to mourn. Russell makes it clear that modern human life is bound by war and economic depression, the base realities of human existence, which are the source of the real human trauma as it thwarts his ability to imagine and thus, recreate his reality.
Arva, Eugene L. “Writing the Vanishing Real: Hyperreality and Magical Realism.” Journal of Narrative Theory 38.1 (2008): 60-85. Print.
Barthes, Roland. Image-Music-Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. London: Fontana, 1979. Print.
Russell, Karen. St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, New York: Random House, 2007. Print.