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Swamplandia! (Vintage Contemporaries) Paperback – July 26, 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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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 tells the story of the Bigtrees, a family that runs an alligator wrestling show in the middle of the Everglades. Their story is told through the voice of Ava, who, at age 12, is the youngest child in the family. Her older brother, Kiwi, and sister, Osceola, are her primary companions. The three of them live on an island with their father, Chief Bigtree and around 100 alligators. The family is in crisis. Since the death of Hilola Bigtree, Ava’s mother and star of the family’s gator show, the business has been failing. Hilola Bigtree was the glue that held the family together, and in her absence, they are spiraling out of control. They are trying to deal with Hilola’s death without the emotional tools or support to do so. Chief Bigtree is in denial, and tries to keep the show going, as if nothing has changed. But the impossibility of their situation inevitably catches up to the Bigtrees, and this is where I feel that Ms. Russell loses her way, much as her characters do.
Swamplandia starts off with great humor and understanding as Ava introduces us to her family. She is the calm center in a growing storm. An unfortunate effect of the 12-year-old as a first-person narrator is that Ava tends to have more self-awareness for a person her age. Ms. Russell gives her, if not insight, then acceptance of the behavior of her family. Ava’s calm demeanor makes the stories most horrific events almost banal.
Which gets me to my biggest issue with Swamplandia. Instead of going for full out farce, ala Carl Hiaasen, Ms. Russell has written a story that takes the reader into some really dark areas of mental health and rape. But Ava’s humor and calmness put me in the uncomfortable situation of not knowing whether to laugh or cry as tragedy strikes. The most horrific events are presented with just enough humor to make me feel unsure about how serious they really were.
Finally, Ms. Russell brings her story to a close with events that are so improbable as to really be impossible outside of the type of farce that she has moved away from.
In Swamplandia, Ms. Russell has created some intriguing characters, but she got caught between tragedy and farce. Her story would have been better served by having a clear commitment to one genre or the other.