In the short story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” Karen Russell doesn’t bother with explanations of why things are the way they are. The girls are raised by people who are both wolf and human. Sometimes they have five digits, sometimes they’re covered in fur (perhaps both). They are described early on as werewolves, but not the kind that stay human in the day and turn wolf at night under the full moon, but instead they are half wolf, half human all the time just as the name “were (half) wolf” suggests.
The main plot of the story is about a group of werewolf children who are basically given to the School by their parents who want a better life for their children and they are lead to believe that this life is the life among humans as humans. Living life in the woods is a hard life, especially for those that aren’t “purebred” wolves. They parents see how humans live and automatically assume that their children’s lives will be better than theirs.
There are small indications throughout the story that life as a human does have its downsides. The girls are encouraged to stop thinking for the pack and start thinking for themselves. They ignore the pain of the individual, even taunt the girl who cannot seem to adapt – the one who refuses not to help her fellow sisters.
The girls are normalized and socialized to groom themselves and speak human and to dance, though they never quite get the hang of any of it and are doomed to forever stick out as foreign to the humans. They do however stop killing pigeons with their bare teeth and eat cooked meat.
The nuns are working with the girls at this strange finishing school to normalize the girls so they can become naturalized human citizens. Yup, that’s right this is a thinly disguised allegory for immigration.
The sections of story are even framed by instructions from a handbook telling the nuns how to guide the girls through the process much as an immigration agent would guide his or her clients through the citizenship process. The story works on many levels, it could also be seen as an allegory for growing up – going from a wild thing that is an enfant to a refined adult. But the talk of different of the journey from one culture to the next makes it clearly a story of an immigrant moving from one world to another. (It could also be the story of a student traversing from the world of ignorance to knowledge.)
The beauty of this story is that it is told purely from the point of view of those making this journey. The narrative is in first person of one of the wolf girls. When she looks back at her wolf people in shame it is not a judgement on the author’s part, purely this girl’s story. This is what it is like for this girl to make this journey. This is what happens to her. She ends up living a half life between the humans and the wolves and not accepted by either, yet deeply ashamed of the wolf culture where she came from.
An explanation of why or how this werewolf culture came about is neither given nor necessary. It simply is. An explanation would be beyond the point. That’s not what the story is about and an explanation would only get in the way of that. There are those who would read this story and fret the entire time.
“Yeah, but, where do they come from?” they would ask, “Are they wolves are they humans?” And that would be all that type of reader would get out of the story. For this person the story would be empty of meaning. He wouldn’t get that those questions were beside the point. For him suspension of disbelief is given to him via google and Wikipedia. He needs everything to make sense for everything to be easily explained, despite the fact that that is not how life works.
The allegory and metaphor even the subtext are a sticky wicket for this reader. He wants a thorough explanation, even though that is what will ruin the story. For him even the memoir will prove difficult.
There are things that are difficult to understand like technical manuals, like math and science – they too require interpretation and even science will fall short of the amount of thorough explanation required by the literal minded reader. Sorry, science doesn’t know everything and, little secret, it may never do so.
When working with literature, dig a little bit deeper, investigate the language and the situation. What does this remind you of? what could this mean beyond what it is telling you on the surface? Don’t expect everything in the story to be served up to you on a platter. You’ll have to translate, just as you have to translate mathematics or science.
(When I run across readers who complain that a classic work just doesn’t make any sense, despite the fact that to me it’s obvious, I’m reminded of a Key and Peele sketch where Jaden Smith has to have words like “outside” (that stuff that passes by your limo) and “grocery shopping” (that stuff butlers do) and “choice” (when you can’t have both things – a concept foreign to Smith) explained to him.)
“Saint Lucy’s” takes the magic of the world and makes it real. The wolf girls investigate their world by smell and by bite. That is normal for them. Their allegory is more sophisticated than the medieval allegories where Everyman confronts the Dragon of Doubt and fights it with his Sword of Faith, but still you get the gist. And when they wobble on two legs and work to pronounce human words and when they get used to not smelling their scent on everything, the meaning of what they’re doing is obvious. They’re transitioning to a different state of being much as a child learns to be an adult. When the character goes back to her old cave and everything seems smaller, more quaint after she has graduated from her school (totally naturalized), it’s a reminder of what a person who has become used to another country feels when going back to her native land. No explanation is needed. The translation of allegory is clear.