It has been a year since Hilola Bigtree died from ovarian cancer leaving behind her three children – Ava, Osceola (“Ossie”), and Kiwi – and “The Chief,” her husband. Swamplandia!, with their mother at its center, is the family business and the only life the Bigtree children have ever known. Wrestling alligators, selling “museum” trinkets, and entertaining the tourists who arrive on the ferry is what they have always done. But, now things have changed. Their mother’s loss has not only left them achingly alone, but has also left Swamplandia! without a star act. And there is a new game in town by the name of World of Darkness, a garish theme park of twisted rides inside a whale’s digestive tract and pools filled with ruby colored water. Kiwi, nearly seventeen and longing for a college education, runs away from Swamplandia! to become an employee at World of Darkness. Chief Bigtree mysteriously disappears on one of his vague “business trips,” and Ossie, just turned sixteen, seems lost in a world of ghosts and an old dredge boat. Ava, age thirteen, is left to her own devices and resolves to save Swamplandia! and her family before time runs out.
Karen Russell’s Orange Prize nominated debut novel is filled with quirky characters, rambling plot lines, and gorgeous descriptions of the Florida swamps. It is also a darkly constructed story about the individual nature of grief and loss. Each character in Swamplandia! is devastated by the loss of Hilola – a woman whose death-defying act of swimming with the alligators (called “Seths”) opens the novel. It seems that death is all around this family – from the monstrous Seths, to the World of Darkness where tourists are called “Lost Souls,” to Ossie’s flirtation with a dead teenage dredgeman, to Ava’s fantasy of visiting the Underworld and finding her mother. Each character is traveling their own path through grief.
Chief Bigtree, the dad, is oddly disconnected from the reality of his failing business. He seems unaware that his children are falling apart. His reaction to the loss of his wife can only be called denial. Perhaps Ava understands this best of all when she observes:
You could become a fossil in your lifetime, I’d discovered. I’d seen the eerie correspondence between the living Seths in our Pit and their taxidermied brothers in our museum. The Chief could achieve an ossified quality, too, with his headdress skeletally flattened against the sofa back, drunk and asleep. – from Swamplandia!, page 238 -Kiwi flees the family, and runs from the memory of his mother whose image he keeps taped to the inside of his closet door. He leaves behind the safety of Swamplandia! and enters society where his differences stand out and he struggles to fit in with his peers. Now seventeen years old, he is no longer a child whose eyes are closed to the stark reality of his parents’ world and as he navigates through his grief, he uncovers family secrets and a rage he hardly knew existed.
Ossie escapes reality by slipping into a world of ghosts and fantasy. On the cusp of womanhood, she begins a relationship with the ghost of a dredge boat, slipping out of the house at all hours and spending her time calling up spirits with the help of a mysterious book.
She set off across the muck as briskly as a mainland woman who is late for her ferry. Her footprints filled with groundwater and as I watched a dozen tiny lakes opened between us. Rain blew in from the east while out west the sun burned through a V in the trees, bright and gluey-gold as marmalade. – from Swamplandia!, page 127 -But is is Ava, narrator of much of the novel, who is the saddest in her grief. She believes her mother has trained her to become the next amazing alligator wrestler. Ava tries to hold her family together, and when that fails, she dreams up a way to save Swamplandia! which includes applying to compete in an alligator wrestling competition, and hand raising a rare red alligator. Ava’s memories of her mother are clear and poignant, and cloaked in a child’s reflections.
Our mother, in several beautiful ways, may have been a little crazy. For example: who dries their clothing with a hurricane coming? Like Ossie, Mom got distracted easily. It was seventy-thirty odds whether she would remember a conversation with you. Her moods could do sudden plummets, and she’d have to “take a rest” in the house, but she’d always emerge from these spells with a smile for us. Until she got sick, I can’t remember our mother ever missing a show. – from Swamplandia!, page 43 -Swamplandia! is, at its heart, about the love that binds a family together in the face of devastating loss. The strength of the novel is in its characters who are memorable and feel very real. Russell also excels at description of the flora and fauna of the Florida swamps. Where the novel struggles is in the plot which tends to drag until the latter third of book. Russell alternates between Ava’s first person narration and Kiwi’s third person point of view – a technique which tended to break up momentum in the plot. It felt, at times, like Russell could not decide whose story she really wanted to tell. Ava’s voice is, overwhelmingly, the strongest and could have carried the novel alone.
Despite its occasional humor, Swamplandia! is a dark novel which resonates with danger. Reality is often fragile and just out of reach. Not everything is as it seems. It is this haunting quality which carries the reader through the final pages of the book to an ending that stretches believability. In fact, the end of the novel did not endear me to it. Russell quickly wraps up the book and pins a little bow on it, something I found frustrating after some plot twists which took my breath away.
I did not love this book, but I found it interesting. Russell is a talented author whose child characters pulled on my heartstrings, but whose meandering plot kept me from fulling engaging in their story.