In the title story of the 2006 collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Karen Russell revealed her prowess for writing a powerful short story premise with a fantastical twist. “St. Lucy’s Home” chronicles the experiences at a reform school for feral wolf-girls. It creates an eerie parallel with the American Indian Boarding Schools that once “civilized” children through assimilation.
The arc works so perfectly, the narrator so pitch-perfect and the ending line so resonant, that the short story feels nearly as satisfying as a novel. Mirabella, a wolf-girl who struggled to reform, stands as one of the most sympathetic characters in any short story I’ve read. I can still hear her howling as her schoolmates—evolved into normal girls by the end of the story—chant at her, “Back to the woods! Back to the woods!”
My adoration for Russell as a storyteller has remained intact, from her first collection to her stories that have been featured in magazines and best-of anthologies for the last dozen years. So, I hungered to pick up her latest collection released this May, Orange World and Other Stories.
What initially energized me about the eight tales was how much Russell has expanded her geography. Known for using Florida as a common setting in her earlier work, she activates locations across the American West here—with half the stories in the collection this side of the Mississippi.
“The Prospectors” opens the book with two women, Aubby and Clara. They head west during the Great Depression to charm and pilfer from men who are finding work and sudden money with the Civilian Conservation Corps. Aubby narrates through their plan to ride a chairlift up a mountain to a ski lodge to work the grand opening party, but they get on the wrong chairlift. It leads them to another lodge, one destroyed in an avalanche that killed 26 young men.
Aubby and Clara need to keep their wits about them and figure out the best way to handle the situation. “‘Same plan as ever,’ Clara said. ‘How many hundreds of nights have we staked a claim at a party like this?’ Zero, I told her. On no occasion had we been the only living people.”
The setup uses the ghosts to tell a human story of the desperate men brought far from home for work—and two women who find sympathy for them even as they fear them. The cocktail of humor, heart and horror effectively drives “Prospectors” and nearly all the narratives of Orange World.
The Western setting also appears in “The Bad Graft,” “The Tornado Auction” and the title story. In “Bad Graft,” a young couple, Angie and Andy, embark on a road trip that lands them in Joshua Tree National Park. They arrive in the middle of a “pulse event,” where the Joshua trees are blooming wildly and the yucca moths are swarming.
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Trouble arises when a Joshua tree, in the midst of this natural orgy, enters its spirit self into Angie in an unexpected possession. Russell pulls off this surrealistic move by interweaving moments of panic and curiosity for both tree and woman. In one odd scene, the tree discovers through the woman how much he loves dancing.
“The Tornado Auction” stands as the clearest instance of Russell establishing a strong premise populated by the right characters, arc and details to bring it to pulsating life. Bobby worked in the business of tornado farming—to raise twisters in specialized farming conditions in order to release them for demolition work or weather as entertainment.
Although Bobby turned obsessed with tornadoes, his livelihood led to a family tragedy. He abandons the business, but comes back in his old age to buy one last baby tornado and cultivate it into a monster. The curious concept gives way to the personal exploration of Bobby, a lonely man in a dying business having one last go of it.
Russell closes with the title story, about a new mom named Rae. She learns three concepts in a parenting class: Green World, Orange World and Red World. Green is a place where children are always safe and Red is a place where children are always endangered. But orange is the world we live in, where children are usually safe but there are always dangers prowling. Rae’s anxiety is rankled by the uncertainty of the Orange World.
To quell this, she makes a pact with a demon to keep her baby safe. The catch? She has to wake around 4 a.m. to breastfeed it. Rae struggles with her demon pact until she finally admits to one of the veteran moms in a support group what is happening. She assumes she’ll be thought of as crazy, instead: “Yvette fails to to conceal her disappointment. She has long acrylic nails, a chic blue. ‘Rookie mistake, babe.’”
The “Rookie mistake” line is one of the best in the story, when Rae learns that this demon creature preys on new moms and their insecurities—and many others have fallen into its trap. The horror element of the creature anchors the narrative in the way it embodies visceral parental fear.
Orange World as a collection lives up to the ideas of its meaning, with stories featuring dangers that lurk in unexpected ways. Throughout, Russell holds on to her crown as the modern queen of the short story premise.