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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.
If I could use one word to describe the mood of this novel, it’s heartbreaking. One moment of depression snowballs into several other tearjerking moments. Losing a mother is bad enough. But then the financial burdens stemming from her loss become all too real for any reader. We’re currently living in an economy where homes are being taken away, people are becoming broke from healthcare costs, and the only people who are hiring the new blood are minimum wage employers. Sometimes, working to exhaustion isn’t the answer no matter how many times the Republican Party says it is. In fact, exhaustion is what makes this novel so depressing, because we see the aftermath of trying to scrape together enough money and stay alive. It’s stressful to think about and I wouldn’t wish this kind of poverty on my worst enemies. In terms of putting together a realistic picture of economic worries, Swamplandia does that job perfectly.
I know the World of Darkness theme park is supposed to be a horrible place to work judging from how poorly Kiwi Bigtree is treated by everyone there. It is, after all, a hell-themed amusement park. The swimming pools are dyed red (to resemble fire), the merchandise has devil horns on it, the food is fattening (because gluttony is a sin), and all of the rides are basically comparable to being swallowed by a ferocious, fiery demon. While I condemn the working conditions of the World of Darkness, I praise Karen Russell for inventing such a place in her novel. I am a dark fantasy nerd and the diabolic themes of this place make me think of barreling through Diablo II: Lord of Destruction dungeons with a dual-wielding barbarian. But I know why Karen Russell had this theme park in her story: because she wanted to parody Disneyworld and hold a mirror up to their horrible working conditions. It tickles my dark fantasy urges and depresses me at the same time.
However, there is one thing that irks me about this novel and it’s the reason I’m giving it a three-star review instead of a four or five-star one. The pacing of Swamplandia feels like I’m dragging my eyes across sandpaper just to make it to the next chapter. In other words, it’s slow and it’s tiring. I don’t know if I should owe the exhausting pace to the purple prose writing style, the obscure references, the over-thinking and overanalyzing, or the constant dips into the past. I can’t quite pinpoint what makes this book such a slow read, but if Karen Russell wanted me to feel just as exhausted as the main characters after they work their fingers to the bone to protect their theme park, then mission accomplished. It may have been by design, but that doesn’t mean it’s an effective technique.
If you want to read a story about Murphy’s Law on steroids and have the patience of a saint, I would gladly recommend Swamplandia to you. A warning to the wise: if you manage to make it towards the middle and you haven’t figured out if this is a fantasy or modern day drama book, I don’t blame you. The only reason why I know it’s labeled “Magic Realism” is because I looked it up on Wikipedia. Maybe the genre confusion is all part of the suspense. That would have been a great tactic if the suspense wasn’t reserved for the near-end of the book. A mixed grade goes to Karen Russell’s debut novel. Will I ever pick up another Karen Russell book again? I haven’t decided yet.