Literary Corner Cafe

Monday, March 14, 2011

Book Review - Swamplandia by Karen Russell


If you read “Zoetrope” in 2006, you might have read a short story titled “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” which featured an imaginatively strange setting in the Florida Everglades, a resourceful young heroine, and a strange problem. If you liked the story, you’ll be delighted to read that its author, Karen Russell, has expanded it into a full length novel, Swamplandia!.

The protagonist of Swamplandia! is the charming and engaging thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree, the same Ava who was featured in Russel’s 2006 short story. And she’s just as charming in the book as she was in the story. Ava, who is definitely reminiscent of Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, is the youngest of the Bigtree family of Ten Thousand Islands, Florida. Since her birth, the family’s 100-acre reptile theme park, Swamplandia! has been Ava’s only home. She loves poking around her family’s so-called “history,” which is set forth on the walls of Swamplandia!’s “museum.”

In 1932, the Bigtree family patriarch, Ernest Schedrach, who was from Ohio, was suckered into buying a parcel of land in the Everglades that was under six feet of swamp water. Ernest and his wife, Risa, however, fell in love with the swamp and developed an immediate affinity for their new neighbors, the swamp’s alligators. Despite the fact that he had no Native American ancestry, Ernest assumed a Native American identity and became Grandpa Sawtooth Bigtree. He and Risa transformed their newly-acquired swamp property into an alligator wrestling theme park called Swamplandia!, complete with ninety-eight alligators all named Seth and a gift shop. It wasn’t long until Swamplandia!, which was open “365 days a year, rain or shine, no federal holidays, no Christian or pagan interruptions,” became the “Number One Gator-Themed Park and Swamp Café in the area.”

As Russel’s debut novel opens, Ava Bigtree – along with her sister, Osceola, and her brother Kiwi – have just lost their mother, Hilola to ovarian cancer. The thirty-six-year-old Hilola was also Swamplandia’s! main act, and lost in his fog of grief over the death of his wife, Chief Bigtree neglects to amend the park’s promotional materials to let his customers know that they won’t be seeing the main attraction any longer. At first, visitors to Swamplandia!, many of whom have traveled many miles, though sorry they won’t be seeing Hilola do her death-defying alligator swim through a gator pit “planked with great grey and black bodies,” are sympathetic toward her widower and her children. As time goes on, and the park teeters on the brink of foreclosure, the visitors become angrier and less sympathetic, and Chief Bigtree and his children become more unglued by their grief. Eventually, each of the four finds his or her own way of dealing with the loss of Hilola.

When days perusing moldy books on the local library boat, which was abandoned in the ‘50s, begin to get boring, Ava’s frost-haired, violet-eyed, sixteen-year-old sister, the dreamy Ossie decides it might be fun to fool around with a homemade Ouija board and try to conjure up the ghost of the recently and dearly departed Hilola. Ava, who misses her mother dearly, goes along with the project and is crushed when it doesn’t work out as planned. Ossie, however, has other ideas. She decides if she can’t conjure up Hilola’s spirit, she’ll conjure up a few dead boyfriends for herself instead. This is all too much for Ava, who reports Ossie’s doings to their father. For Chief Bigtree, this proves to be the last straw, and he takes off for the mainland and an extended “business meeting.”

Seventeen-year-old Kiwi, who is bookish, and who would rather spend his time studying for his SATs, departs for the mainland as well, determined to make enough money to save Swamplandia! He gets a job at, where else? A theme park. Hilola’s demise has coincided with the rise of a new, more modern theme park known as the “World of Darkness,” one whose guests are called “Lost Souls.” They can swim in a pool called the “Lake of Fire,” buy inflatable beach balls called “Brimstones,” and eat at “Beelzebub’s Snack Bar.” Yes, “World of Darkness” is a lot like the Underworld has been portrayed, and Kiwi joins the janitorial crew, making minimum wage, until fate intervenes with other plans for his life.

Meantime, Ossie really has managed to conjure up a ghost, Louis Thanksgiving, a canal digger, dead since the 1930s, with whom she elopes to the Underworld. Ava, in the hopes of maybe meeting her mother and the definite need to rescue her sister, takes off with a creepy, feather-bedecked guy known as Bird Man. Together, Ava and Bird Man scoot around the mangrove swamps in a fourteen-foot skiff looking for the route to the Underworld and Ossie, a route Bird Man promises Ava he knows. But – beware of strangers bearing gifts. There is much more to Bird Man than what initially appears to be.

With Grandpa Sawtooth in a nursing home and Chief Bigtree off on the mainland indefinitely, Swamplandia! becomes what I think Russell wanted it to be: the story of three lost siblings. I didn’t mind the chapters that alternated between Ava’s point-of-view and Kiwi’s point-of-view, however, while Ava is a fantastic narrator, Russell didn’t seem to quite know where she was going with Kiwi. He’s an engaging kid, but his narrative just sort of drifts. I think he was along for the ride to lighten things up a bit (this is not a comedic book; the story of Ossie and Ava is really quite dark), and at times, he does do that. However, too much of the time, he’s just floundering, like a fish out of water.

The bulk of the book concerns Ava’s search, with Bird Man, for Ossie, and is an exploration of the bonds sisters share. I thought Russell did a good job of conveying sisterly love, but at times, Ava’s journey got bogged down in the swamp, so to speak. Now, I love to read novels in which the author shows a love for the land. I love highly descriptive writing. So, to some extent, I really appreciated Russell’s details of the flora and fauna of the Florida Everglades. But when one is reading a book whose theme is the bond among sisters and brothers there comes a point, regarding flora and fauna, where “too much really is too much.” All the talk of marls, gharials, anhingas, and melaleucas was fine – for a while – but eventually, it tires the reader out.

Russell’s descriptive sentences, though, were well-written, there’s no denying that. She’s great at describing the Everglades “leafy catacombs;” its “rotten-egg smell [that] rose off the pools of water that collected beneath the mangrove’s stilted roots.” In Swamplandia!, water “bunches and wrinkles” like “black silk.” A river becomes a “looking glass for stars.” Mosquitoes are “tiny particles of an old, dissolved drain...something prehistoric and very scary that sips you in without ever knowing what you had been.” Ten Thousand Islands was made up of “vernal currents, an air as lushly populated as seawater, deer flies and damselflies, a whole cosmos of mosquitoes: all this iridescent life....”

I loved that; I just wish Russell had given us a little less of it. All-in-all, it was just “too much of a good thing.” It needed to be woven into the plot more. As it is, it slows the pace of the book far too much. The suspense began to really lag. I began to yawn and put the book aside, despite Russell’s energetic and robust prose, wondering when she was going to get back to Ava and Bird Man and their quest for Ossie once more. I wanted to read a book about people, people in trouble, quirky people, not a naturalist’s guide to the swamps. Some professional reviewers have said that Russell “maintains expert control over the narrative.” Obviously, I don’t agree. I thought parts of it got away from her. Far too many times I had to ask myself, “Where in the world is this book going?”

And then there’s the ending. After letting her story bog down in the middle for so long, after letting its struggle for meaning be so transparent, and after asking her readers to suspend their disbelief regarding so much, the ending feels forced and rushed and more than a bit too pat. I don’t need everything spelled out, but I felt as though a door had been slammed in my face. The ending was that abrupt. And what about that “bad thing” that happens to Ava? I couldn’t buy it. It seemed to be chosen by the author more for its shock value than because it was inevitable and organic to the story’s plot.

Still, there’s plenty to like in Swamplandia!. Yes, the book is quirky, and if all the characters had been developed to the degree that Ava was, and if the pacing had been much, much better, this might have been a book able to rival the fabulous Geek Love or Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. It is imaginative, and it does show flashes of true brilliance, but only flashes. Russell has a real gift for eccentricity, but I think she has to remember that eccentricity for eccentricity’s sake never works. The humanity of the characters can’t get lost among the quirkiness. For the most part, Russell manages this delicate balancing act, especially with regard to Ava, though she could have – and should have – done better where the other characters are concerned.

Swamplandia! was obviously written with a great deal of love. Those who enjoy quirky characters in even quirkier situations will certainly find something to like – and maybe even love – in this book. In the long run, however, I think Swamplandia!, unlike Geek Love, is going to be more of a phenomenon than a lasting work of art. While I give this book four stars for imagination, I can only give it 2 for structure and overall craft. I’d give it 2.5 overall.

I wanted to love this book. I really did. But though I adored Ava, and though I really like Ossie and Kiwi, Russell just made loving the book impossible with the deficiencies in craft. Darn.

2.5/5

Recommended: If you’re really into quirky books and quirky characters and don’t mind a slow middle and a rushed ending you might like this one. The character of Ava is well drawn and endearing. Be aware, though, that the ending is very abrupt, totally unbelievable, and will probably leave you wanting to throw the book across the room.

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