Karen Russell likes kids. She likes them to be lost, hurried, confused, afraid. Have you read Swamplandia!? In that story, our heroine is Ava, proud member of the Bigtree clan, brave alligator wrestler and frightened little girl. Here, Russell offers ten stories that include similar themes. And like Swamplandia!, (a book I really, really loved), Russell deftly and somewhat subtly shimmies between the real world and fantasy. I think a mark of good fantasy is that when you read it, you don’t think “this some good fantasy! what a weird, wacky world we are visiting!” (or, alternately, “what the hell is going on?”). Instead, you think about the characters and the emotions that drive the story, accepting the constructed world appreciatively. Russell hits that nail on the head.
There are ten stories here, and I won’t go into all of them. The first, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” is what led to Swamplandia!, though it differs a bit. But we are again treated to a muddy world, filled with ghosts and lizards and a man wearing feathers. In the end, Ava has to wrestle a lot more than a silly alligator. The book’s title comes from the final story. Here we find young girls, pulled away from their werewolf parents (that affliction skips a generation) and put in reform school. They must learn to be bipedal, to stop urinating everywhere, to stop chewing. Can they truly adapt? You know what they say—home is where the heart is. The second story is my favorite. Two brothers, mourning the loss of their little sister, find a pair of swimming goggles that allow them to see all the ghosts under the sea. It’s heart-wrenching and magical, full of glorious images.