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Swamplandia! Hardcover – Deckle Edge, February 1, 2011
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Guest Reviewer: Carl Hiaasen
*Starred Review* Russell’s lavishly imagined and spectacularly crafted first novel sprang from a story in her highly praised collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006). Swamplandia! is a shabby tourist attraction deep in the Everglades, owned by the Bigtree clan of alligator wrestlers. When Hilola, their star performer, dies, her husband and children lose their moorings, and Swamplandia! itself is endangered as audiences dwindle. The Chief leaves. Brother Kiwi, 17, sneaks off to work at the World of Darkness, a new mainland amusement park featuring the “rings of hell.” Otherworldly sister Osceola, 16, vanishes after falling in love with the ghost of a young man who died while working for the ill-fated Dredge and Fill Campaign in the 1930s. It’s up to Ava, 13, to find her sister, and her odyssey to the Underworld is mythic, spellbinding, and terrifying. Russell’s powers reside in her profound knowledge of the great imperiled swamp, from its alligators and insects, floating orchids and invasive “strangler” melaleuca trees to the tragic history of its massacred indigenous people and wildlife. Ravishing, elegiac, funny, and brilliantly inquisitive, Russell’s archetypal swamp saga tells a mystical yet rooted tale of three innocents who come of age through trials of water, fire, and air. --Donna Seaman
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Most of the story is told in first person, by thirteen-year-old Ava. Some chapters are told in third person from brother Kiwi’s point of view. We never see older sister Ossie’s perspective. She is viewed at a distance through the other characters. These kids have had a most unusual upbringing in a family of alligator wrestlers on a tiny private island. They are loosely home schooled. Their only exposure to mainlanders has been those who arrive by the boatloads to the family’s theme park, Swamplandia! The star attraction is the mother’s dive into a pit of alligators. When Mom dies of cancer their world breaks apart, piece by piece. Ossie communes with ghosts and receives messages from the spirit world through her Ouija Board. She falls in love a ghost and they become engaged. It’s never clear whether there really are ghosts, or if Ossie has gone off the deep end. I suspect the latter. With their theme park failing, the father leaves to work on the mainland. Kiwi eventually leaves too, and finds a job at a competing theme park called the World of Darkness. Ossie elopes with her ghost. This leaves Ava completely alone in the deserted alligator park. She is approached by an odd character known as the Bird Man, who says Ava’s father owes him money. He discovers Ava is alone when she tells him how her sister has run off with a ghost. Bird Man leads Ava on a quest for the Underworld to find her Ossie, “before it’s too late.”
Each of the three children comes of age in their own way, separated from the others. The book is filled with clever symbolism, and I’m sure there are many symbols I did not catch.
Not everyone in my book club loved this book as much as I did. We were split 50/50 among those who loved and those who disliked it. So I can’t really say for sure who I’d recommend it to. But I will say, dare to give this book a chance. If you love it, you have found a brilliant tale that will overwhelm your imagination and stay with you for all time.
Swamplandia! is an amusement park on an island, which is part of the Florida Everglades. The park features, among other things, alligator wrestling, and the main wrestler is a woman, Hilola Bigtree, who is struck with cancer. Her husband, the Chief, operates the place, and their three children help out. With the death of Hilola Bigtree, which occurs on page eight, her family must cope, but what happens, instead?
Without their star attraction, the business begins to fail. The Chief decamps, and the children aren’t even sure where, on the mainland, he has landed. Teenage Kiwi, the only son, also leaves. He realizes he must send money home to keep the park afloat and takes a job at a competing park called World of Darkness. The elder daughter, Ossie, exits with an entity she believes is a ghost, and for a time, the reader might be fooled into thinking she actually does. Ava, the young narrator of most of the novel (her chapters are the only ones written in first-person), is left to fend for herself, and she does a most unwise thing: trusts a male adult who is not a member of her family, not even someone she knows tangentially, to help her locate her sister. To tell any more is to spoil your read.
I can say, however, that in the same manner in which I envy someone’s great photograph, I wish I’d written a book like this. At first, it fools you into thinking it’s sort of a comic romp, but then these people Russell has created are too smart for that alone. Though home schooled (by way of Florida state curriculum), all three children have great vocabularies, use their common sense to help them out of the trouble that even smart kids can get into. They pay attention (to some things, anyway). They become acquainted with the unjust and tragic history of the Seminole Indians, which perhaps keeps them from feeling as sorry for themselves as they might. Russell’s metaphors are apt, growing naturally out of this swampy environment. Here, little Ava compares alligators to her missing sister:
“Even if she’d [Ossie] gotten away from him [her ghost fiancé] the prognostications were grim—alligators with unusual pigmentation can’t camouflage themselves in the dust-and-olive palette of the swamp. Their skin is spotlit for predators. That’s why you don’t see albino Seths [Ava’s pet name for alligators] in the wild. Once an alligator reaches a size of four feet its only real predator is man” (338).
Ava’s mind is using the image of alligators to speak the unspeakable: that her sister has probably disappeared with a ghost, who has the unlikely name of Louis Thanksgiving. Yet Ava faces her own trials (this is NOT a Young Adult novel), and in the end, by what seems a great coincidence which the author has earned the right to employ, the family is united, or reconstituted. At any rate, Russell, who has also published fiction in The New Yorker, is sure to garner our attention for a long time if she can create other exciting narratives like Swamplandia!
Ms. Russel’s writing is simply brilliant. Until you begin taking it for granted you pause at each clever phrase and whisper, “Wow!”
This was Ms. Russell’s second novel and it deserved being shortlisted for the Pulitzer. Alas, the prize wasn’t awarded in 2012. The Pulitzer jury’s decision was more than curious. David Foster Wallace’s “The Pale King” wasn’t even completed in his lifetime, and was forensically pieced together by his editor. It shouldn’t even have been on the short list. Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” is a piece of drug-induced lunacy and not remotely literary. The prize is awarded for the best work of American fiction that year and the jury shouldn’t have been deadlocked. What were they thinking?