Book Look - Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Rarely has a book aroused so much controversy within my book group! Some were wowed by the story’s creative excesses and the author’s prowess at harnessing them to her cause; others found the characters improbable, the plot depressing, and the author's take on “magical realism” either a little too magical or, alternatively, not magical enough. Or perhaps we should have anticipated this, since even the Pulitzer Prize folks couldn’t seem to figure out where they came down on this one? Though I did empathize with some of the points made by the skeptics, I definitely continue to number myself among the book’s enthusiasts.

At its most superficial level, Swamplandia! relates the history of the dysfunctional Bigtree “tribe” (not a drop of actual native blood among them) who run an alligator-based tourist attraction in the Florida Everglades: Chief Bigtree, the clan’s father and the one responsible for creating and sustaining the family mythology, apparently in an attempt to elevate the chaos in which they live to something more noble; mother Hilolah, who headlines the “swimming with gators” show but whose careless courage may have more to do with bipolar disorder* than some sort of tribal manifest destiny (*high-low-la – get it? Alas, I’m a sucker for puns and wordplay); their eldest son Kiwi, the only one of the children not to buy into the family mythology but whose grasp of reality is far more tenuous than he imagines; Osceola, their ethereal albino daughter; and the narrator of the tale, 13-yr old Ava, who is the family’s “true believer” and the lens through which we experience and interpret the events of the book – much in the same way we experience the events of To Kill a Mockingbird through Scout’s eyes. This is either a brilliant (me) or frustrating (them) literary conceit that casts the elements of the story in a perpetual shroud of doubt, for while Ava is, for her part, an honest and endearing narrator, the events of the novel are filtered through (and almost surely tainted by) her self-delusions and naïveté.

The family’s precarious existence is dealt a double blow when Hilolah dies suddenly of cancer and a tourist attraction called World of Darkness (an amusement park version of Hell) opens up on the Florida mainland, robbing Swamplandia! of its remaining clientele. Each member of the family struggles to cope with this double loss in variously tragi-comic ways: Chief Bigtree, by temporarily abandoning his family to establish a secret double life; Kiwi, by fleeing to the mainland to pursue his fantasy of a “normal life”; Ava, by concocting wild schemes to save Swamplandia! from certain doom; and Osceola by seeking out the consolation of “ghosts” lingering among the reeds and melaleucas of the enclosing swamp. Then Osceola disappears permanently into the swamp one night, leaving a note that she is off to join her “ghost boyfriend” for eternity, and their precarious existence collapses entirely. Poor Ava, armed only with her mother’s courage and her child’s faith, is left to pursue her sister and try to preserve her family from disintegration - a quest that results, predictably, in disillusionment and tragedy, but also in hope and redemption.

Some of the many aspects of this book I enjoyed:

• Russell’s creative genius and lovely, lyrical prose. Make no mistake, this woman’s got serious literary chops. Can’t count the number of times a description/sentence/turn of phrase left me reeling. My copy of Swamplandia! has so many underlined passages, it looks like a college student’s philosophy textbook.

• Ava, the story’s narrator. She’s a wonderfully eccentric and wholly endearing creation. Which, of course, is why parts of the story are hard to read (a point I willingly concede to the book’s skeptics). For Ava’s sake you keep hoping for the Disney ending, even though your literary intuition senses that Russell’s bracing us for the Joseph Campbell ending instead.

• The way Russell weaves magical elements into the tale, further blurring the line perception and reality. Is Osceola’s boyfriend a true ghost, or merely a figment of her fertile imagination? Does the Birdman actually possess a magical gift to summon birds? Could vultures actually whisk a dying man into the air? Could there be an entrance to Hell in the midst of the Everglades?

• The way Russell slyly laces Darwinism throughout the tale: “survival of the fittest” as a justification for why we humans deserve what we get by pursuing an Ayn Randian brand of unfettered, soulless capitalism – expelling native Americans from Florida and destroying the Everglades by planting melaleucas so that we can literally build our own Hell (The World of Darkness).

As my book group discovered, this novel definitely isn’t everyone’s cup of tea! But if you enjoy gothic ambiance, find ambiguity intriguing rather than frustrating, appreciate literature that challenges you to think, and possess a passion for brilliantly crafted prose, you may find Swamplandia! to be as haunting, as disturbing, and as worthy as I did.

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