SWAMPLANDIA! by Karen Russell
“You thought you couldnâ€™t stand not to know a thing until you knew it, wasnâ€™t that right? Who had said that, the Chief? Some poet from the Library Boat, maybe.
Knowledge at last, Kiwiâ€™s mind recited dutifully. The fishâ€™s living eye glass.
Sometimes you would prefer a mystery to remain red-gilled and buried inside you, Kiwi decided, alive and alive inside you.”
Review by Devon Shepherd Â (FEB 02, 2011)
In her hotly-anticipated debut novel, Swamplandia!, Karen Russell returns to the mosquito-droves and muggy-haze of the Florida Everglades and the gator-themed amusement park featured in her short story, â€śAva Wrestles the Alligator,â€ť that opened her widely-praised 2006 collection, St. Lucyâ€™s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. It was that collection, with its exuberant mix of satire and fabulism, that secured Russellâ€™s reputation as one of the most exciting up-and-comers around and earned her a coveted spot on The New Yorkerâ€™s much buzzed about â€ś20 under 40â€ť list last fall. With her energetic prose, quirky settings, and fantastical plots, Russell is a writerâ€™s whose style forces you to sit up and take notice, sometimes at the cost of emotional involvement with her work. However, Swamplandia!, with all its flashing-neon prose is an insightful (and surprisingly funny) exploration of the loss of innocence that inevitably follows the death of a parent.
In the year following her motherâ€™s death, 13-year-old Ava Bigtree quickly learns how â€śone tragedy can beget another and another.â€ť Since birth, their family-owned, 100-acre island attraction, Swamplandia!, has been Avaâ€™s home. Its 98 alligators (all named after their original gator, Seth, because as Chief Bigtree likes to say â€śTradition is as important as promotional materials are expensive.â€ť), Reptile Walk, Live Chicken Thursday feeding shows, and lone mammal, a balding, rhythmless bear named Judy Garland, have all helped Swamplandia! hold its position as the â€śNumber One Gator-Themed Park and Swamp CafĂ©â€ť in southwestern Florida. That, and Avaâ€™s motherâ€™s gator-swim routine. However, when Hilola Bigtree dies of ovarian cancer, Chief Bigtree, lost in his own fog of grief, fails to amend the promotional materials and tourists continue to file off the Mainland-Swamplandia! ferry eager to watch the â€śSwamp Centaurâ€ť swim through a gator pit â€śplanked with great grey and black bodies.â€ť Initially, the disappointed mainlanders are understanding â€“- after all, a family has lost its mother – but, their hijacked sympathy soon swings to money-back-demanding indignation, until a new corporate theme park, the World of Darkness, opens just off the highway, and the tourists stop coming altogether.
With the tourists gone and their father increasingly preoccupied, Ava and her dreamy older sister, Osceola, (white-haired and violet-eyed, Ossie resembles â€śthe doomed sibling you see in those Wild West daguerreotypes, the one who makes you think Oh God take the picture quick; this one isnâ€™t long for this worldâ€ť) are left alone with empty days to fill. The girls take to hanging out on the abandoned library boat with their studious brother, Kiwi. Kiwi is the kind of guy who gives himself report cards and studies for his SATs long before heâ€™s even stepped foot inside a high school, and so he scoffs when he learns that Ava and Osceola plan to contact their mother with Ossieâ€™s newly acquired occult powers and their homemade Ouija board.
Their unsuccessful sĂ©ances crush Ava, but when Ossie starts using the Ouija board on her own to meet other ghosts â€“strange men! â€“ Ava tattles to their father: her sister is dating men, dead ones. Burdened by the parkâ€™s mounting debt and his own mismanaged grief, Chief Bigtree isnâ€™t up to dealing with his lonely and disturbed 16-year old daughter.
Or anything else, for that matter.
Angry at his fatherâ€™s inability to face their increasingly precarious financial situation, Kiwi runs away to the mainland to save his family from destitution and is initiated into the realities of minimum-wage labor as a peon at the World of Darkness. And so, when the Chief disappears to the mainland on mysterious business, Ava and Osceola are left to fend for themselves in the swamp. However, as Osceolaâ€™s romance with the ghost of a ill-fated, Depression-era dredgeman, Louis Thanksgiving, intensifies, Ava is left increasingly alone. When Ossie runs off to the Underworld to elope with Louis Thanksgiving, a mysterious stranger, the Bird Man, offers to be Avaâ€™s guide in her quest to retrieve her sister
Forget Danteâ€™s rings or Homerâ€™s River Styx; this is mangrove swamp as the Underworld! With its fecundity and â€śblue lozengeâ€ť water ways, Ava frets that the swamp doesnâ€™t look much like the underworld sheâ€™s read about in books, but with its â€śleafy catacombs,â€ť ravenous mosquitoes, and â€śrotten-egg smell [that] rose off the pools of water that collected beneath the mangroveâ€™s stilted roots,â€ť but I canâ€™t think of a milieu more likely to harbor ghosts.
Part of successfully navigating the swamps of adolescence involves knowing which beliefs to cling to tenaciously, and which to modify, if not altogether discard. Although the inevitable loss of innocence that follows is heart-breaking, as the Bigtree children learn that life on the mainland is just as imperfect as life on the swamp, that loving a ghost, if possible, comes with a steep cost, that mothers, once dead, stay gone, Russell never lets us lose our sense of humor. Moreover, as Ava oscillates between her girlish beliefs and her adult awakening, Russell maintains expert control over the narrative. So much so, in fact, that the reader, like Ava, is unsure of exactly what to believe. That is, until disaster strikes, and the reader is left sharing Avaâ€™s sentiment: we should have seen it coming all along.
Ava and Osceolaâ€™s story is about loneliness, loss and sisterly love, but Kiwiâ€™s sudden emersion in the ways of the contemporary teen helps to lighten some of that darkness. Fascinated by the alien customs around him, Kiwi takes to writing down his observations while his colleagues take to calling him Margaret Mead. His education into mainland life is perceptive, and often hilarious.
Swamplandia! is a quirky, but well-crafted read, and Russellâ€™s prose is dynamite. While the ending might be too pat for some, I was so impressed by Russellâ€™s knack for description and laughed far too many times (really!) to hold it against the book. Karen Russell has been likened to writers as wide ranging as Amy Hempel, George Saunders, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kelly Link and Judy Blume, and while her energetic prose might be too exhausting for some, if her writing is anything, itâ€™s this: original.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 462 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Knopf (February 1, 2011)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||MacArthur Foundation page on Karen Russell|
|EXTRAS:||Reading Guide and Excerpt|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Another Southern Florida story:
- St. Lucyâ€™s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006)
- Swamplandia! (2011)
- Vampires in the Lemon Grove ( 2013)
- Sleep Donation: A Novella (March 2014)
February 2, 2011
Â· Judi Clark Â· 3 Comments
Tags: brother-sister, carnival, Knopf, Loss, Magical Realism, Quirky, Sisters Â· Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Coming-of-Age, Contemporary, Family Matters, Florida, Humorous, Unique Narrative