Short Story Spotlight: “Proving Up”, by Karen Russell

I’ve been on somewhat of a binge diet of short stories lately, consuming a few collections a week on average, as well as nibbling from the sundry literary journals floating around the house. The idea was to keep my reading sessions brief and uninvolved in order to maintain focus on my own novel, while at the same time absorbing and learning new styles and voices from writers of the highest caliber. But as I’ve progressed in my reading (everything from the classics – Gogol, Chekhov, Hemingway – to highly lauded contemporary collections – George Saunders, Karen Russell) I’ve stumbled upon some astonishingly brilliant, profound, mesmerizing stories that pack more punch in 20 pages than many novels do in 200. Some of these have left me awestruck, dizzied, unspeakably jealous. They’re too good not to share, to shout from the rooftops, “Read them! Read them! It takes less time than a rerun of Seinfeld!”

So in this new section, The Short Story Spotlight, I will do just that. No in-depth reviews – I don’t want to spoil these babies. Part of the magic of a great short story is that it sneaks up on you, often being buried in a collection without a blurb of its own or appearing in a journal without fanfare or press.


This first story I’ll feature is Karen Russell‘s, “Proving Up”

This story, first featured in Zoetrope under a different title, “The Hox River Window“, won the 2012 National Magazine Award for fiction, and I now know why. 9781410457981_p0_v1_s260x420

In this spectacular, spooky tale, the 4th in Russell’s recent collection, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” 11-year-old Miles Zegner narrates a harrowing and mesmerizing account of the struggles of his family of homesteaders in Nebraska in the 1800s.


 My mother is thirty-one years old, but the land out here paints old age onto her


This is no ordinary Steinbeckian tale of the west: Russell is not exactly known for ordinary. Here she plucks an odd clause straight from the Homestead Act – the requirement for an abode to have a glass window – and uses it to astonishing effect, launching young Miles atop his beloved and spirited mare Nore on a mission through a blizzard to share the settlement’s single window between a few hardscrabble families in order to fool a government inspector. There are ghosts and madmen, inclement weather, dugout abodes carved right into the sod (with a hole left in one wall where the window goes), and the prose hits the perfect notes throughout.


I think Jesus Himself would cause less of a stir stepping off that train; He’d find a tough bunch to impress in this droughty place, with no water anywhere for Him to walk on.


This story alone is well worth buying the collection, but there are some others that will astound and confound as well. I’ll be checking out Russell’s Pulitzer nominated novel, Swamplandia!, on the strength of the writing in these stories alone.

Let me know some of your favorite stories in the comments below.

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6 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing! I’m always on the look-out for great short stories. The link only features an excerpt, but I might break down and buy the journal. I’ll try going to the library first though 🙂

    Actually, my favorite short stories are mostly sci-fi, lol. I went through a huge sci-fi phase in high school and read lots of short stories. This is my favorite sci-fi short story collection: http://www.amazon.com/Science-Fiction-Hall-Fame-Vol/dp/0765305372/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1409525129&sr=8-2&keywords=science+fiction+short+stories

    Most of the novels I read are literature. I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately because I’ve taken a step back after writing a fanfic novel that was a 200k word mess XD I need to improve a lot before I start a novel of my own. I’m just writing short stories for now, and I’m having a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I can’t post them on my blog because that makes them ineligible for submission into like 75% of literary journals (90% of the prestigious ones). Most of them want first publishing rights. I’ve been posting them over at a password protected literary critique site and that has helped a lot.

    The Paris Review tends to have amazing stories, and most of their authors are well-established, so I enjoy reading that one. But they only post a few stories online in their entirety. Most are in excerpts. I found one guy that wrote amazing poetic prose, and I thought I added a novel of his to my Amazon Wish List, but I didn’t :/ I’ll have to dig through The Paris Review to find it again. The New England Review is a prestigious journal that has at least one fiction story in it’s entirety per past issue, so I’ve been going through that and enjoying it a lot. Here is it if you’re interested: http://www.nereview.com/back-issues/vol-32-2011-12/vol-32-no-4-2012/

    It’s in the top 50 for prestige, so most of the stories are excellent. Only one or two so far that I couldn’t or didn’t want to read.

    Margaret Atwood, one of my favorite authors, is releasing a short story collection this September: http://www.amazon.com/Stone-Mattress-Tales-Margaret-Atwood/dp/0385539126/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1409525658&sr=8-4&keywords=margaret+atwood+short+stories

    I’m really excited for that 😀 This comment was a bit longer than I intended :$ I’m just excited to share my love of short stories with another writer, lol.

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    1. Ha! I love your enthusiasm. I’ve been on a huge short-story kick myself lately, both reading and writing them, and have been wary of posting any for the same reasons. I actually just had a story of mine, Tartarus, shortlisted for the Aeon Award in the UK. It’s a horror/sci-fi tale I wrote after binge reading Poe and Lovecraft. So that’s encouraging, but they don’t announce winners until January. I love Atwood as well – grew up reading her. I have a whole list of stories I’m going to add to this section soon when I find the time, but a few of the best I’ve encountered lately are My Bonny by Jo Lloyd which was in the most recent Zoetrope All Story, Mr. Cartoon by Chris Offutt which you can find at the Virginia Quarterly Review and read for free, and The Junction by David Means, which you can read free at Electric Literature’s recommended reading: http://electricliterature.com/the-junction-by-david-means-recommended-by-ecotone/

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      1. Ooooh, that’s so awesome your story got shortlisted for an award 😀 Even if you don’t win, that’s an achievement already ^^

        I tried reading Lovecraft and I couldn’t get into it. I might try again. I was into horror as a kid with the Goosebumps series. I don’t typically watch horror movies though because the focus is more on gore than psychological torture/angst and suspense. I did watch Steven King’s The Shining, and I really enjoyed that. Well, enjoy might not be the right word to use since I was actually really scared XD I’m into horror video games although I can’t play them myself because I get way too scared, so I watch them on Youtube. I watched a video game based on The Call of Cthulu, which was interesting. It’s been a long time since I read Poe. I might have to give him another try.

        Thanks for the short story recommendations. I’ll check those out!

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    1. I’m over on Critique Circle. This is the link if you are interested: http://www.critiquecircle.com/

      My favorite part about the site is that stories get a week in the queue, and during that time you can’t read the critiques unless you submit one of your own. This prevents readers from becoming biased by reading reviews of a story before actually reading it. This was a problem for me on another critique site. I was getting good concrit, and someone that didn’t like my writing started monopolizing the conversations. Unfortunately, his advice was not helpful, so I just left without replying to him. He rewrote my intro (butchering the prose and characterization), told me my writing was boring, and that I needed to read a book on how to write fiction XD I mean he was trying to be helpful, but it wasn’t, especially since I don’t want to write like him.

      Anyway, I’ve found some good writers over at Critique Circle that have helped me quite a bit. Another thing I like about the site is that to post a story you need credits, and you can only get them by critiquing other stories. If you join the group my name is Bunny9 😉 It’s password protected as well, which many literary magazines seem to be okay with. One of them even encouraged it. The internet can’t cache password protected entries.

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