If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class, in high school, college, or beyond, you’ve probably heard of Karen Russell — more specifically, her short story, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.” I’ve been assigned to read this short story, at the very least, three times, for various classes, so to me, it’s apparent that this is a very popular work among the academic community.
But why, though?
Well, for starters, it’s Karen Russell. Her work includes some of the best magical realism to date, especially since the release of her newest collection, Orange World and Other Stories, in 2019. As far back as 2006, when St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves was published, Russell had earned her spot as a well-respected speculative fiction writer.
One of the most valuable strategies employed by speculative fiction — whether it be fantasy, sci-fi, magical realism, horror, etc. — is its ability to discuss real-world issues that aren’t typically easy to talk about casually. It’s much easier to talk about death (of the physical body or of the self — and sometimes both) if there are knights, magic, space ships, monsters, or talking animals.
In Russell’s case, little girls who have been raised by wolves are taken in by nuns who make it their mission to assimilate the girls into human society. In the process, the girls become more like their human mentors, but it comes at the price of their identity within their pack.
One of the very first aspects of the girls that are forcibly changed by their human caretakers are their names. While all of the girls raised by wolves use wolf names that sound like snarling or growling, these names are carelessly cast aside when the nuns slap a HELLO MY NAME IS ____ sticker on them, picking out more basic human names like Jeannette and Mirabella.
Mirabella, seemingly the problem child of the pack, has a difficult time assimilating into this new culture and becomes constantly confused as to why her family are acting so strangely. Unable to change her identity to fit with how everyone else is adapting, the sadness of Mirabella’s situation becomes all too clear.
“Congratulations!” the nuns would huff. “Being human is like riding this bicycle. Once you’ve learned how, you’ll never forget.” Mirabella would run after the bicycles, growling out our old names. HWRAA! GWARR! TRRRRRRR! We pedaled faster.Russell, Karen. St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. p. 238.
While Mirabella feels as though she is losing her sisters and is saddened and confused by the change, Jeannette becomes proficient in adapting. The first to master most tasks, such as dancing and reading, Jeannette is proud of her ability but also represents a certain loss of where she came from. She still misses home and the rest of the pack, as well as the lives they used to have there.
“Why you cry?” I asked her, instinctively reaching over to lick Jeannette’s cheek and catching myself in the nick of time. Jeannette blew her nose into a nearby curtain. (Even her mistakes annoyed us — they were always so well intentioned.) She sniffled and pointed to a line in her book: “The lake-water was reinventing the forest and the white moon above it, and wolves lapped up the cold reflection of the sky.” But none of the pack besides me could read yet, and I wasn’t ready to claim a common language with Jeannette.Russell, Karen. St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. p. 239.
The forest and the moon, images that Jeannette is only able to experience again by learning how to read (like a human), remind her of home, a place she is no longer as connected to as before.
The viewpoint character, Claudette, lies somewhere between the innocent failings of Mirabella and the well-intentioned but only partial successes of Jeannette. Even while comforting Jeannette, Claudette hasn’t yet mastered human speech, but she does know how to read. Claudette represents the feelings of the rest of the pack, herself often becoming the voice of the pack’s fear of Mirabella and the annoyance of Jeannette.
All three characters behave differently to assimilation into human society, a change that comes in stages but is never fully realized — at least, not within the story. At best, Claudette and the rest of the pack (not including Mirabella, who innocently resisted all of the nuns’ attempts to change her and was cast out for protecting Claudette) are stuck someplace between their past and their present.
My mother recoiled from me, as if I was a stranger. TRRR? She sniffed me for a long moment. Then she sank her teeth into my ankle, looking proud and sad. After all the tail wagging and perfunctory barking had died down, the parents sat back on their hind legs. they stared up at me expectantly, panting in the cool gray envelope of the cave, waiting for a display of what I had learned. “So,” I said, telling my first human lie. “I’m home.”Russell, Karen. St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. p. 246.
That is, the girls raised by wolves are now not fully wolves nor are they fully human. The story’s somber tone, especially at the end, implies not the “best of both worlds” situation of knowing both the world of the wolves and the world of the humans, but a restless world somewhere in between, where they can perceive and understand both cultures but no longer feel like they belong to either.
These feelings — of a loss of identity — can obviously be found in the real world today. Russell not only addresses relatable issues of cultural assimilation, but she does so in a way that makes the issue easier to discuss — and all while using a strange and engaging concept, like girls raised by wolves.
If you like the idea of exploring real-world situations and concepts through fantastical ideas, Karen Russell has plenty of other stories like this one (personally, I actually prefer her work in Orange World to St. Lucy’s). Her material is a great place to look for inspiration if you’re looking to write about difficult topics through the lens of magical realism.