Putney In the News

Veteran Putney Leader Releases New Novel

Five time Putney leader, Karen Russell, released her first novel, Swamplandia!, this month to much critical acclaim. The book is a lush tale of thirteen year old Ava Bigtree, trying to grip, grasp, and hang on to her family against the backdrop of their aging Gator theme park set so deep in the swamps of South Florida that turning each page brings the intense itching sensation of trudging through saw grass.  It blends the quotidian and the occult, the sweet and the suspenseful, and has had us arguing over who gets to read it next.

But don’t take our word for it.  You can read rave reviews from the New York Times, the Chicago-Sun Times, and the Los Angeles Times. Or to see for yourself, just buy the book.

Karen’s success is no surprise to the Putney Barn.  She’s led our students through Language Learning programs and revered Creative Writing seminars.  We’ve watched her career blossom through such milestones as graduation from Columbia’s prestigious M.F.A. program, her appearance in The New Yorker’s debut fiction issue, and a tremendous collection of short stories St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.  She’s been named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists, to The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40, and the Putney Student Travel All-Star list.

Even after all the interviewing she’s been doing (see The Paris Review and Tin House), Karen was still gracious enough to answer a few questions about her time with Putney, and we hope you’ll find her answers as interesting as we did.

You’ve done a number of Putney programs over the years.  What has kept you coming back?

I owe all of my favorite memories to Putney. I led my first trip, Language Learning Spain, with Vince Ruiz, who became and remains my best friend. We were a family–we loved our students so much! I imagined that my role as a Putney leader would be to help our high school-age students to change and grow, but I had no idea that my own life would change to such an incredible degree. That first summer, we went canyoning, hiked the Picos, took flamenco dancing lessons in Seville, saw the Prado…but just listing our activities is a poor approximation of the journey we all went on together. Pete and Jeff Shumlin talked about “the Putney Magic” at orientation, which for the uninitiated can sound a little vague—what are these guys talking about?  But on my first trip, I got to experience exactly that—our group was so intensely bonded, and we had so many adventures together, and was a huge honor (and really fun!) to get to lead such an amazing group of students.

Really, it was my students who kept me coming back–at the risk of making everybody Hallmark-nauseous, I really loved them like crazy. Those of us fortunate enough to be Putney leaders get to play really special roles in the lives of young people—alternately best friend, counselor, teacher. I was hooked, and I came back for four more summers. Even after my friends began strongly hinting that I should get a “real” job in the summers—but why would you want to sit at a desk when you could be surfing  in Australia, or helping to collect honey on an organic farm in Argentina?

Karen and Vince pose for a photo during Putney orientation before their departure for Spain in 2003.

As a writer, and an educator, what do you think is different about the Putney experience?

Well, Putney really is structured around travel, not tourism. This is not a teen tour where yawning sixteen year-olds are shuttled from wonder to wonder, which they all dutifully snap photos of for Facebook; we tell our Putney students over and over, “this is your trip.” We give them the responsibility to make the experience something extraordinary, and it’s amazing to watch them rise to the occasion and take ownership of the experience. I’ve seen students undergo seismic shifts on these trips, as a consequence of our trust in them. You get to watch real miracles in a matter of weeks.

Have you incorporated any Putney experiences/landscapes/people into your writing?

In my story collection “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” I do borrow some of my former Putney students’ names—Olivia was a lovely student on our Creative Writing in Cuba trip who graciously gave me permission to use her name, as did Jeff Brauser (the red-headed sociopath in “Accident Brief”—in real life, Brauser was one of our all-time most beloved students, and it’s a credit to his good nature and sense of humor that he loaned me his surname for that story!).

In addition to plundering kids’ names willy-nilly, the settings of two stories in that collection come directly from my Putney experiences—“Accident Brief” grew out of our amazing airplane trip to ski the glacier in Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand, on our Australia, New Zealand, Fiji trip.

And the shipwreck in “Haunting Olivia” I based on the gloomy, unforgettable underwater ruins of the Ensenada Gomez, where the fabulous Tim Weed and Vandoren Wheeler and I took our Cuba group snorkeling.

Karen (second in line) stands with her students before taking a zip line across the Juramento River Valley in northern Argentina.

Favorite Putney moment?

Honestly, there are one zillion. Whenever Vince and I bring up Putney summers now our friends groan and leave the room (we know they are just jealous of our amazing experiences!). My siblings can mouth along to “classic” Putney tales. Snorkeling off the Great Barrier reef holding onto my student Margaret’s hand, so as not to get blown into what appeared to be a tremendous abyss; hiking around a bend in the Andes into a real cloud, so that you could feel this sort of proto-rain fizzing on your cheeks. Watching fellow leaders Tim and Van and our Cuba boys wrestle a wild pig in the mud of Baracoa. Trying to do a “pizza-wedge” with my skis in New Zealand, on my first-ever day skiing (I’m from Miami), and waving to Vince and all of our horrified/amused students as I fell onto the moonwalk and did an accidental, very painful cheerleader split. I have to cut myself off, I could go on for ages!

Co-Director Peter Shumlin Elected Governor

The usual fall buzz in The Barn cranked up to a new, higher pitch this year as Putney Co-Director Peter Shumlin campaigned for Vermont’s top job.

After a tight victory in a crowded field of five in the Democratic primary in August, Pete faced a tough campaign in the general election. Relying on his extraordinary stamina, a forward-looking optimistic platform, and a network of dedicated supporters across the state, Pete prevailed on Nov. 2.

Inauguration Day is January 6, 2011.  You may get a recording if you call The Barn that day!

For all the details, see:

The Brattleboro Reformer

The Burlington Free Press