“The Ghost Birds” by Karen Russell from the October 11, 2021 issue of The New Yorker
I have loved so many of Karen Russell’s stories in the past that I’m ecstatic to see her return to the pages of The New Yorker. And it’s the perfect season to sit down and read one of her strange, often creepy and unsettling stories! And the first line of the first paragraph have me excited.
I led the way through the woods because I didn’t want my daughter to have her first encounter with the ghost flock alone. We were trespassing, but it seemed highly unlikely we’d be caught—the school had been abandoned since the previous century, when ash from the Great Western Fires made most of the region unlivable. My daughter had never set foot inside an old-fashioned brick-and-mortar school, and seemed more intrigued by the idea of seeing a chalkboard than by the birds. The school was on the outskirts of a Red Zone in our family’s ancestral breeding grounds—“Oregon” on the older maps, the ones from my boyhood. An evocative name, a name I loved and mispronounced with reverence at age eleven. I grew up in a town called Eugene, in the shadow of mountains that were unreachable by my third birthday. Ore-gone.
I will say that the rest of that paragraph has me a bit wary, though. Russell’s stories have a tendency to start with a strong image and then move quickly to tell the reader what’s going on. I think that’s going on here. The first sentence is evocative and interesting, and then we spend another several sentences just setting the mundane scene of a post-climate disaster world. And not without a clever zinger that might have been better cut out. Those are some of the hallmarks of her work for me, but I have been trying to do better to recognize that what I like in fiction, what I prioritize, is not “best.” I want to roll with it more often. I think I can do that with this story. I hope so!
How about you? Do you like Russell’s work? Did you like “The Ghost Birds”? Please let me know below!
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