Swamplandia!

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (2011). 336 pages, Knopf.

Not surprisingly, I read a lot of book reviews. I subscribe to the New York Times Book Review, as well as listen to their podcast once a week (go Sam Tanenhaus!). I read a lot of book and publishing blogs as well, such as TeleRead. And I pick up lots of recommendations from various Kindle forums and blog posts as well.

Swamplandia! has been showing up with glowing recommendations on almost every one of these places. In addition, since the novel is set in South Florida, and since the author Karen Russell is from Miami, it’s gotten a lot of local attention as well. Usually I don’t get around to actually reading recommendations like this until months after the book has come up… but something about the reviews for Swamplandia! made me decide to put it at the top of my list. And, since the Kindle edition was priced at the magic $9.99 point, I started into it right away.

This is a wonderful, engrossing book. All of those other glowing reviews are right on the money. Enjoyable, unusual plot in a unique and unusual setting. Characters that are entertaining as well as realistic. And Russell’s prose is fantastic – evocative and thrilling, tender and wistful, humorous and encouraging – and even deeply disturbing when called for.

Swamplandia! (yes, it’s always with an exclamation mark) is the story of an odd family, the Bigtree Alligator Wrestling Tribe. The Bigtrees are as white as I am, and moved down to Florida decades ago when they got sold, literally, 100 acres of swamp land. Rather than cursing the real estate agent who swindled them and then returning home, they stayed. And over the years, turned their one of the Ten Thousand Islands of the Everglades into a local tourist attraction, thanks to a ferry that made a mandatory stop on their island.

Somewhere back in the forties, Grandpa changed the family surname to “Bigtree”, and decided they were a tribe. And that became part of the family legend. Swamplandia! is like a lot of Florida roadside attractions, featuring alligator wrestling, a few other sad animal acts, and a lot of exaggeration. The Bigtrees run the park purely as a family business, with all the children doing their part.

The current generation consisted of Sam “Chief” Bigtree, wife Hilola, and their three children: oldest son Kiwi (17), daughter Osceola (16) and youngest daughter Ava (13). Both Ava and Kiwi have taken up the family calling of alligator wrestling, Ava with enthusiasm and Kiwi with reluctance. Osceola, a more moody child, contents herself with running the gift shop and giving tours.

The star attraction is their mother Hilola, whose act consists of diving from a platform into a pool filled with alligators, and then swimming between them to safety as the crowd cheers. In fact, Hilola Bigtree’s “Diving with the Gators” is really the only thing that distinguishes Swamplandia! from any of the other hundreds of cheesy tourist traps in Florida.

But as the novel opens, Hilola has just died of cancer, leaving the Chief and the three children without guidance – and the park without its star attraction. Young Ava hopes to make up for her mother’s absence, but it’s a tough row to hoe.

That’s the setup. The novel alternates between the first-person narration of Ava in the swamps, and the third-person narrative of Kiwi on the mainland. Kiwi strikes out to try to make some money for the now-broke family, and ends up as a janitor at an amusement park that simulates hell (the patrons are “Lost Souls”, for example). Chief Bigtree heads back to the mainland to call upon his “investors”, leaving Ava and Osceola alone on Swamplandia!

But Osceola has become entranced with an occult book, and becomes convinced not only that she can commune with the spirits – but that she has fallen in love with one. When she vanishes, leaving a note that she has decided to elope with one of her ghosts to travel to “The Underworld”, Ava is determined to go after her.

The only adult Ava can call upon is the odd Bird Man, a local gypsy-type who wears a coat of feathers, and makes his living scaring birds off of people’s property. And so, while her brother works in an amusement park version of hell, Ava sets off with the Bird Man in a tiny skiff to try to find the real thing.

Ava’s journey with the Bird Man is the heart of the novel, and is both enthralling and creepy at the same time. Because, as it turns out, the Bird Man’s motives for wanted to help find Osceola are not at all the same as Ava’s, and in a disturbing and uncomfortable scene, he turns out not to be who (or what) Ava thought he was. When Ava suddenly realizes she’s been duped, it’s a crushing moment that almost took my breath away. While reading the next scene, I was muttering “no… no… no…” under my breath. That’s some powerful prose right there, folks.

Kiwi’s journey through the World of Darkness parallels Ava’s journey through the swamp. While Ava learns about the underbelly of the Everglades, Kiwi discovers just how sheltered their upbringing was. And, when he discovers just what his father’s “investment” activities consist of, it changes his life almost as much as Ava’s journey changes hers.

The second half of this book, once everything is set up and rolling, is a nonstop read. I couldn’t put the Kindle down, and had to stay up until 2:30 in the morning to finish it.

The book ends cleanly and properly – although with not much in the way of denouement. We are led to believe that Ava and Osceola, at least, end up in high school on the mainland. It’s hinted that the three siblings are still in friendly contact in their adulthood. But, we don’t know what actually happened to any of the characters. Did Kiwi become a pilot? Did Ava ever return to alligator wrestling in any form? And I can’t begin to imagine what path Osceola would take later in life.

I know that Russell has written some short stories with these characters in the past; perhaps she’ll write some more with them in the future. I’d like to travel around Florida with these characters some more. Regardless, I eagerly await her next creation.

But you don’t have to wait. Go get yourself a copy of Swamplandia! and devour it.

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