Thank goodness for the postman and the day he delivered Swamplandia! to my door.
Swamplandia!, written by Karen Russell, tells the story of the enigmatic Bigtree family, owners and operators of a down-at-the-heel tourist destination in the Florida Everglades. Their main draw? Alligator wrestling. Every member of the Bigtree clan pits themselves against giant, man-eating reptiles for the good of their park, Swamplandia!
The family is a rag-tag group, existing happily amongst the steamy marshes and 90-odd gators. Life seems idyllic until the unthinkable happens: Hilola Bigtree, the brood’s mother and Swamplandia!’s biggest star, succumbs to an untimely death. Audience size (read: income) becomes less and less, and when a rival mainland park, the World of Darkness, begins to make a splash, the family is suddenly facing dire financial straits. Each family member struggles to cope with the tragedy. The father, Chief Bigtree, leaves in order to find means of unleashing “Carnival Darwinism,” the adaptation of the park in order to avoid extinction, and eldest child Kiwi defects to the World Of Darkness, leaving 12-year-old Ava and older sister Ossie to watch over the park. When Ossie goes missing, Ava embarks on a harrowing, absurd journey across swamps and into realities beyond her imagination.
So why exactly am I thanking the U.S. Postal Service for delivering this novel to me? It is all because of author Karen Russell’s uncanny eye for detail. You see, as a native Californian, I don’t adjust very easily when the cold and drizzly temperatures come upon us. These past few weeks have made me wish fervently for the heat of the sun and for lush scenery. I needed to be transported to another place, and Russell’s words did just that. Swamplandia! is so expertly explicit that at times I swore I could smell the mildewy air rising off of the marsh plants and stale sea water. The uncomfortable stickiness of the heat, the buzz of insects, the groans and splashes of the Seths (all the gators are named Seth) all became very real, turning my cold little room into someplace dark and magical. Russell invites the readers to feel the scratch of the children’s unwashed clothing and to inhale the sweetness of Hilola’s flowery perfume; to get you lost in another place, it seems, is Swamplandia!’s singular goal.
I am also thankful to find a book in which not one of the characters could be called “forgettable.” It is rare that an author can write such a lovable, motley crew of bumblers. The Chief’s complete loss at what to do with his park and children is hilarious yet heartbreaking. Kiwi’s apparent betrayal comes from a singular, unrealistic idea: With a minimum-wage mainland job, he will be the one to pay the park’s debts and save Swamplandia! for good. Sweet, strange Ossie clings to a belief in ghosts and romance to fill the hole her mother’s death has left in her heart. And what can be said about Ava? Braver than most adults, Ava is the sort of heroine for which recent literature has been screaming. Sure, she’s naive to a heart-rending fault (to tell you why would disrupt the magic of the first three quarters of the novel), but Ava’s determination to find her sister and become the hero Swamplandia! needs trumps any of the wilted, convoluted female roles introduced in recent years.
I’m so glad that I decided to click “buy” when I came across Swamplandia! It is a lovely, if at times disturbing, novel with great description and even greater heart. So, when you’re all done with grueling exams and term papers of epic proportions, head over to the bookstore, pick up a copy and brace yourself to be ferried into a world of ghosts, loyalty and alligators named Seth.