Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Reviewed by Jacob Hammer
At first I was a bit skeptical about this book. If I’m being honest, it was largely due to the large alligator on the cover. I am just not a huge fan of alligators, but one of my co-workers at the bookstore convinced me to overcome my apprehensions about the prevalence of alligators in the book and give it a try. What I found was a book that is inventive, adventurous, and rewarding.
The events of the story center around a family of alligator wrestlers who run a theme park called Swamplandia! in the Ten Thousand Islands off of Florida’s coast. The book begins in the perspective of Ava Bigtree, the youngest child in the family. Throughout the novel Ava narrates for us in the first person lending the book a more approachable feel overall. Early on, the mother (Hilola Bigtree) dies. If that tragedy were not enough, Hilola also was the star of Swamplandia!’s most popular shows. This leaves the family in dire straits. On top of all that, a rival park named The World of Darkness moves in on the mainland that offers top-notch rides, attractions, and advertising that the Bigtrees can only dream of at this point. For a while, Ava tries to take over for her mother and become the new star of the show, but attendance is still dropping at the park and her dad (Chief) begins pursing slightly hair-brained plans to improve the park and compete with The World of Darkness. Ava’s oldest sibling Kiwi is doubtful of the Chief’s plans and eventually develops his own plan to run away to the mainland, get a job, then begin to pay off the outstanding debt of Swamplandia!, and even fund some of the Chief’s more doable plans. Meanwhile Osceola (who is the middle child of the family) becomes obsessed with a book called The Spiritist’s Telegraph and begins to communicate with ghosts.
From here, the book separates into one narrative following Kiwi and what we could call the main narrative that stays in the first person with Ava and the rest of the Bigtree tribe. Kiwi struggles to adapt to the world off the island and ends up with a job as a janitor at The World of Darkness that pays him so little he ends up owing the company money at the end of the first month. Through a series of misadventures Kiwi is eventually able to gain a promotion to a pilot in a new feature that includes flying over the swamps in a boat-plane. While he is away, the remaining Bigtrees continue to struggle to keep the park open for a while longer until the stream of tourists dries up completely and even the ferry comes only rarely. At this point, Chief takes a trip to the mainland he claims is to help find investors. He is gone for a couple of weeks before Ava and Osceola find an abandoned dredge boat on the outskirts of the island Swamplandia! is located on. Osceola meets a ghost whose name is Louis Thanksgiving. She meets him in the boat regularly and alone for a few days while Ava’s suspicion of the ghost grows and her doubts about his existence begin to disappear. One night Osceola goes out to the dredge and does not come back by the morning. When Ava goes to check on her, the boat is gone. At this point Ava meets the Bird Man. The Bird Man makes his living using a whistle to chase birds away from people’s islands and has just scared the buzzards off of Swamplandia! Ava confesses her fears that Osceola will go with Louis into the Underworld to the only remaining person on the island. After some convincing and offered payment, the Bird Man reveals that he knows the way to the Underworld and that if they leave right away, they still have a chance of getting there before her sister is lost forever. They travel for days together in a small boat navigating the tangles of mangroves and channels on their way to where the Bird Man claims the Underworld is to be found. He convinces Ava that they are going to find her sister and Ava believes him because she so desperately wants to find her before it’s too late. The
Bird Man betrays her at the end and as Ava is beginning to have some doubts about the Bird Man’s supposed secret knowledge and even the existence of the Underworld he takes advantage of her. This betrayal is shocking at first, but as Ava makes her escape through miles and miles of impenetrable and uninhabited swampland the signs of the Bird Man’s true intentions begin to seem obvious and make the hurt all the more deep to the reader.
At this point you almost want to lose hope. We have discovered that the Chief is working at a Casino to make some cash in the hopeless pursuit of opening Swamplandia! again. Kiwi is making progress on the mainland, but constantly veering on the edge of disaster. Osceola is lost in the swamp and her only hope of rescue, Ava, is now lost in the swamp as well. I looked at the amount of pages left in the book and was almost nervous things really weren’t going to turn out so well. Characteristically to the rest of the book, a series of strange events leads the family back to each other. Kiwi is taking his flight test when he sees Osceola on a hill in the swamps waving frantically for help and puts the plane gently into a pond to rescue her. Ava spends a couple of days in the swamp running from the Bird Man and just when it seems he may have her caught she escapes through an alligator hole and is rescued by a search party that was tipped off by some gator hunters who saw her and the Bird Man shortly before he attacked Ava. Together the siblings go and find the Chief at the bowling alley/ motel he is staying at. From there the kids go to a real, mainland school and they all live in an apartment together. They adapt to life outside of the swamp and let go of Swamplandia!, but not the memory of Hilola.
This was an incredibly inventive book. I doubt if I will ever read another book about a family of alligator wrestlers dealing with the death of a mother that includes ghosts, a whale-shaped theme park, a red alligator, and even more crazy wonderful things. Throughout Ava illustrates her deep sense of place with detailed (but not exhausting) descriptions of her surroundings whether plant or animal. This immersed me in a world I was totally unfamiliar with and made me feel just as at home in it as Ava did. Moreover, when Russell was narrating the events of Kiwi’s time on the mainland, I felt almost as disoriented as Kiwi did while he adjusts to mainland life in Loomis County. This book was engaging without being demanding, entertaining without being trite, and worth another read to puzzle out the layers of imagery and other complexities so expertly woven into the narrative.