‘The Bog Girl’ by Karen Russell

Russell, Karen 2016

The Bog Girl by Karen Russell, 2016

The magic trick:

Using the presence of the bizarre to comment on normal human situations

We continue Karen Russell Week today with a story that is emblematic of her greatest strength: using a bizarre, even macabre, element to comment on what is otherwise a very recognizable human situation.

In “The Bog Girl,” we find a bog mummy participating in a family’s daily life – at the dining room table, dressing up and attending school. It’s weird. But the overarching themes are normal. Growing up is hard. Navigating high school identity crises are treacherous. Adjusting your relationship as a mother to your son as he becomes a teenager, well, it’s difficult. All very human themes tucked into a story that on the surface is very odd. The bog girl is just a mechanism. And that’s quite a trick on Russell’s part.

The selection:

By August, their rapport had deepened immeasurably. They didn’t need to say a word, Cill was discovering, to perfectly understand each other. Falling in love with the Bog Girl was a wonderful thing—it was permission to ignore everyone else. When school started, in September, he made a bespoke sling and brought her with him. His girlfriend, propped like a broomstick against the rows of lockers, waited for him during Biology and Music II, as cool and impassive as the most popular girl the world has ever known.

Nobody in the school administration objected to the presence of the Bog Girl. Ancestral superstitions still hovered over the islanders’ minds, exerting their quiet influence, and nobody wanted to be the person responsible for angering a visitor from the past. Soon she was permitted to audit all of Cillian’s classes, smiling dreamlessly at the flustered, frightened teachers.

One afternoon, the vice-principal called her into his office and presented her with a red-and-gold badge to wear in the halls: “visiting student.”

“I don’t think that’s really accurate, sir,” Cillian said.

“Oh, no?”

“She’s not a visitor. She was born here.” In fact, the Bog Girl was the island’s oldest resident, by at least nineteen hundred years. Cillian paused. “Also, her eyes are shut, you see. So I don’t think she can really, ah, study. . . .”

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