Swamplandia! by Karen Russell is a book about the alligator-wrestling Bigtree clan living, essentially alone, in the Florida swamps. Chief Bigtree, who is not a native-American at all, runs a fairly successful tourist attraction called Swamplandia! where his wife, Hilola Bigtree, is the star — each night she dives into a pit of alligators (whom they lovingly call “Seth”, or “the Seths”) and emerging, unscathed, at the other end of the pit. However, when Hilola dies of cancer, she leaves behind her legacy: three children, Ossie, Ava and Kiwi, along with a slightly delusional husband who thinks he can somehow resurrect the now defunct Swamplandia! in a way that he could not save his wife.
Separated from any children their own age, the story delves into the imaginary world the Bigtree kids create for themselves — a survival tactic that holds the tenuous threads of their understanding together. Ossie begins to retreat further and further from reality and begins “dating” ghosts that she calls up from her homemade Ouija board and a creepy old book. Kiwi considers himself a genius and, with a letter composed of Thesaurus-laden adjectives, he departs Swamplandia!, defecting to their competition, World of Darkness, to save money for his family. When the Chief leaves and Ossie runs off, Ava is left in charge of trying to hold the family dreams together. With a Bird Man as her guide, she departs on a haunting and harrowing journey. The narrative switches between Kiwi’s (third-person) story of real-world problems with lousy paychecks, not having a high school diploma, and constant teasing from his co-workers and Ava’s (first-person) supernatural one. In many ways, his story is the more accessible. Ossie’s story, however, isn’t developed wholly after her disappearance (and I found myself irrationally angry at her selfishness, even though Ava never was), the reader can make logical inferences regarding the missing pieces, but Russell doesn’t fill in the gaps; instead, it’s Ava who truly acts as the book’s guiding compass, and her story diverges dramatically from her brother’s “mainland” experiences in night school, eating at fast food restaurants and learning curse words — Ava’s journey is a bit of Through the Looking Glass meets The Inferno, only swampier.
I think this book can be read in a variety of ways — a coming-of-age novel, magical realism or a parable using the Florida swamp as a mythical archetype. There are far too many references to hell (the World of Darkness is a hell-themed amusement park, the visitors referred to as “lost souls,” constant references to Ossie’s “underworld,” and the Bird Man who acts as Dante’s, I mean Ava’s, guide to hell) to not consider the archetypal implications. It’s a coming-of-age / loss-of-innocence novel for Ava especially, but also for all of the Bigtree children. Ava’s realization is the most drastic, and her enigmatic red Seth acts an important talisman for her experience.
It took me a while to read this book, not because it isn’t unique and enthralling — it is — but because I only wanted to read it in small pieces, to savor the setting and consider the characters. Russell’s use of time in her book paralleled my own reading of it in a way. Kiwi’s life on the mainland lasted for “weeks and weeks,” while Ava’s journey took mere days. At first I thought this disjointed timeline may have been due to bad copyediting, but the more I thought about it I realized that real life, when one is struggling to survive, feels like an endless journey with no true destination. On the other hand, Ava had a place in mind, a purpose, and her childlike (and perhaps naive) belief kept her cocooned in a dis-reality. Ava had no school, no friends, very few hobbies — her world was an endless twilight. Whereas Kiwi, with his myriad “adult” responsibilities, had a stricter schedule. I suppose childhood seems to many of us like a lost twilight and I believe Russell captured that in her novel. Additionally, prior to reading this book, I doubt I would have described the Florida swamps as “magical,” but I might do so now.
Essentially, Swamplandia! is based around an improbable ghost story, but really it shows a family struggling to cope with changes in their lives and how they manage to stay together and survive. Also, this is the second novel I’ve reviewed (Night Circus was the first) that centered around an amusement park / magical realism theme, I guess that niche genre speaks to me for some reason?
Recommended For: fans of magical realism, gothicism or teen angst, lovers of mosquitos, questioners of time