Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2011
Borrowed from the library. This is the book that made me break the TBR Dare.
Ava Bigtree lives in a swamp. Her dad, “Chief'” Bigtree, runs an island amusement park complete with alligator wrestling, The Swamp Cafe and Live Chicken Thursdays. Everything is going swimmingly until her mother Hilola, champion alligator wrestler and star of the show, suddenly dies. Is this the beginning of the end for Swamplandia!. Will the Bigtree ” Tribe” fall with it?
Karen Russell has created a strong young heroine and placed her in the middle of a place with the tacky feel of a 1950’s roadside attraction. Ava Bigtree, her older siblings, brother Kiwi and sister Ossie, live in the theme park, are part of the show, and are completely disconnected from the rest of modern America. Of course, they suffer the quirks and passions of growing up under very usual circumstances.
Ossie’s smile flickered. “I don’t see how we’d do very well there, Ava. I don’t see how we could really ever catch up. What grade would they even put us in, at a Loomis school? I mean are they going to offer a class for spiritualists? Gym class for you? Gym credits for alligator wrestlers?” She flopped onto the bed and pushed two stained pillows at our ceiling like pom-poms: “Ava, I know! We can try out for the cheerleading squad!”
I laughed, startled – Ossie sounded as bitter as any adult. And Ossie was never the wise guy in our family. The jags of intelligence inside my sister shocked everybody, tourists and Bigtrees alike – she’d say something smart out of nowhere and prove to us she wasn’t only a dreamer. Every time Ossie was funny or mean it surprised me; it was like your skiff hitting and intricate reef, all those delicate white fans that wouldn’t yield, or like your foot scraping a rock in the middle of a deep, empty lake. Even her fantasies had such rocks in them. From pages 86/87.
Russell is a master at clear, concise narration that weaves magical realism with American culture. Her skill with language creates an oddly twisted story, a fairytale, at times like Disney, at others like Grimm. The strength of Ava’s love for her family is what sees her through the loss of her mother, separation from her siblings and her desperate search for Ossie, who run off into the swamp to marry a ghost. I love Russell’s ability to express the connections that develop between siblings.
That night we unrolled our bright blue tarps onto the floor of the central room, which gave the wrecked wood a planetary look. I wanted to play the End of the World, a cheery game Ossie and I had invented in our bedroom, back when the worst threat we faced was Mom’s Spaghetti Surprise. We rolled blankets down the stairs and pretended that we were reupholstering the dead world. The towels were the grass and the seas. Ossie always wanted to be the creator and fluff the prairies, and I’d burst in as the destroyer and kick at stuff and roll everything up again. Mom hated this game because all her towels ended up on the floor. Before the ghosts showed up, we played all kinds of silly games like that, doing a theater of personalities for each other. Ossie like to be the sweet and kind one: saints, princesses, Vanna White. Not me! Even in games I liked to play myself: Ava Bigtree, World Champion Alligator Wrestler. I was as strong as ten men, ferocious. Ossie always let me be the hero. From page 177.
I love Karen Russell’s short stories. St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves is a favorite of mine and I looked forward to this novel with great anticipation. Parts of it are amazing and other parts just don’t hold together. I feel Russell tried to cram too many elements into this first novel. That doesn’t mean it is not a great story, moving, perceptive and at times very funny. It is Ava’s thirteen-year-old observations of her family and their shared lives that really hold this book together.
Swamplandia! is based on a story from St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and includes another story that I read in the New Yorker last summer. It may be the piecing together of these separate bits that makes this novel feel like it doesn’t really hold together for me. Or it could be that it’s just all about sinking into the muck and seeing what eventually floats to the surface, some of which I loved.