In the primeval and spongy ecosystem of wetlands, the precise boundary between earth and water is mired in mystery, obscured in muck — and it’s in that place where acclaimed author Karen Russell steps up to share her love of all things swampen. She reveals in a conversation at BookBrowse:
A lot of my protagonists are stuck between worlds, I think, coming alive to certain adult truths but lacking the perspective to make sense of them. There’s something about that blend of adult knowingness and innocence that I find incredibly compelling.
With quiet competence and vivid imagery, she adeptly conjures up the young life of Louis Thanksgiving from his orphaned beginning in New York City through a “bruised and illiterate” childhood on an Iowa farm to his eventual arrival deep in the heart of a vast Southern swamp where he eagerly takes to the hard labor of dredging canals:
Florida, in those days, was a very odd place: a peninsula where the sky itself rode overland like a blue locomotive, clouds chuffing across marshes; where orange trees and orderly rows of vegetables gave way to deep woods and then, farther south, broke into an endless acreage of ten-foot grass. This, finally, was the vision that reached Louis through the boxcar door: a prairie that looked as vast as the African savanna.
In an interview for the New Yorker “20 Under 40″ series, Russell explains that “this little story within the story opened up. I wanted to try a sort of fantastical-historical story—Hitchcock meets the swamp.”
Enlivened, then, by the primitive symbolic power of birds, the theme of passage between various places (water and earth, adolescence and adulthood, life and death) continues right up to the last moment of the story. Does it conclude in horror? In dawning awareness? With ache over the absence of equanimity?
Miami native Karen Russell is the author of a highly praised ten-story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Her debut novel, Swamplandia!, also set in the Florida Everglades, will be published in February 2011.
UPDATE (Nov 2010): 20 Under 40: Stories from The New Yorker brings together the stories published during Summer 2010 to introduce “twenty young writers who capture the inventiveness and the vitality of contemporary American fiction.”