Stranger Things Happen/St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

December 9, 2011 § 1 Comment

Reading short stories is a different experience from reading novels. Short stories are digested all at once; I generally don’t form an opinion on them until I finish them. Because of that, the short story ending counts for a lot. It can make or break the story for me. The ending of a novel won’t do that, because I’ve already begun to form my opinion of the book long before we get there. If I’m liking a book, the ending can elevate that to a “love,” or downgrade it to an “eh,” but it isn’t going to reset my entire opinion.

I was reading Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen and Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves basically simultaneously, and it began to strike me how similar they were–a comparison that I’m certainly not the first to make, I discovered after googling. It really hit me in Russell’s “Children’s Reminisces of the Westward Migration,” in which the narrator’s father is a Minotaur who chooses to pull their family’s wagon westward himself. Link, of course, cannibalizes fairy tales and fables with aplomb, especially in Stranger Things Happen. Her later collections are a bit more restrained in their allusions, but in her first collection, essentially every story has some bit of reworked mythology, ranging from the pantheon of Greek gods to Donner party lore to Nancy Drew. Both authors, of course, are known for their slightly off-the-walls brand of magical realism, but their approaches to it are quite different: Link usually starts us out in a world that resembles our own, then gradually takes us further and further down the rabbit hole until we’re left stranded in a wonderland we don’t recognize (see: “Water Off a Black Dog’s Back,” “Vanishing Act,” and “Survivors’ Ball, or The Donner Party”). Russell’s more surreal stories, on the other hand, generally start off with their improbable premise stated outright, daring us to believe it and see where it takes us (“Children’s Reminisces,” “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”).

While I could appreciate everything Russell and Link were doing from a technical standpoint . . . I found their story collections a bit of a slog. I had the same experience with Kelly Link’s second collection, Magic for Beginners, which I read a year or two ago. The stories were technically, imaginatively great, but lacked the heart to pull me in. Russell’s in particular felt formulaic when read all at once. But therein lies the magic of the short story: even when I was having trouble pushing myself through one story, sometimes the ending in the next one was enough to electrify me with all of its possibilities.


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