Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!

Swamplandia! is one in a million; in a sense that it’s a story about a family of alligator wrestlers, surnamed the Bigtrees, who are disbanded following the death of the patriarchal mother of their tribe. When she passes, the daughters go in separate directions, one to the swamps with her ghost of a boyfriend, the other confused at her sister’s actions. The lone brother in the family doesn’t agree with dad’s ideas on how to revive the failing park, so naturally he defects to a rival park that just sprouted on the mainland. And if that wasn’t enough I might have forgotten to mention that the father of the family, aptly named The Chief, also goes to the mainland without so much as a bit of contact towards his children. But with all this happening, no one is really thinking about the 98 or so odd numbered gators roaming the families theme park named Swamplandia!. If you look at the book like this, if it’s plotted out exactly like this, it really doesn’t sound all that appealing. Really what you get when you dive into Swamplandia! is a gothic, humorous tale about a family that gets lost, only to find their way back to one another.

At the beginning of this Everglades tale, narrator Ava is just beginning to deal with the fact that her mother has died. In the traditional fashion of an alligator wrestler, Hilola does not die wrestling a Seth (that’s what the family calls the gators) but rather to an extremely fast moving and nasty bout with cancer. With Hilola out of the picture and no experienced wrestler ready to take her place, Swamplandia! sort of falls off the map, giving way to many of the other alligator themed parks found in the Glades. Under enormous amounts of debt, The Chief hatches a plan to revive his business by starting a show or theme called Carnival Darwinism, which involves getting baby saltwater crocodiles from a breeder up in South Carolina. To raise money for this scheme, The Chief heads to the mainland, leaving the kids to fend for themselves. Kiwi, oldest child and only son, disagrees with his father and flees the island as well, only to defect and begin work at a rival park called The World of Darkness. This just leaves the two sisters, Ava and Osceola, Ossie being the older sister. The two seem to get along fine, that is until Ossie discovers an otherworldly tomb called The Spiritist Telegraph on the swamps library boat. From reading this book, Ossie begins to feel more spiritual, able to connect to the underworld realm. Soon enough she’s got herself a boyfriend named Louis Thanksgiving, who was previously a dredgeman who died in the late 1910’s while working in the swamp. The rest of the story is a race against time and ghosts as the family each does their part to try and turn Swamplandia! back into the once glorious park that holds many memories of their mother dear to them.

To a reader completely unfamiliar with the plot, it may seem convoluted to a point. This however doesn’t seem to be a pressing issue because Russell’s prose is absolutely wonderful and a joy to read. The first half of the book, the Bigtree men leaving the island and Ossie finding herself drawn into the spiritual realm, is a rather slow moving process. Given that the book is narrated both by Ava in the first person during her parts and third person during Kiwi’s parts, the tense and every other chapter switch takes a bit to get used to. However before you know it you’ll be amidst a chapter about Kiwi, wanting and wishing to know what Ava and Ossie are up to. The second half of this novel however explodes with force as we see each of the characters start to shape their path and begin to form their stories into the ones that end the book.

There’s a reason Swamplandia! was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2012, the writing is spectacular and even though the story might not appeal to all, the journey is plenty worth it with the ease of reading Russell’s prose. It’s a humorously dark, at times jaw dropping trip into the swamps of Florida that will leave the reader wanting to visit the deep, wet mangroves and fields of sawgrass.

Rating: 8 out of 10 – Russell paints a beautful, dark picture of the Bigtree family. Her prose flows as superb as opposed to the murky water between the Floridian mangroves.

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