Book Review of “Swamplandia!” By Karen Russell

swamplandia-karen-russell-book-reviewIn the highly anticipated book, “Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell, the book begins with the death of Hilola Bigtree, the mother of the Bigtree family and star of the alligator wrestling show at the family-operated Swamplandia! Hilola’s death is not only an emotional tragedy for the family but an economic one as well; the Bigtrees are forced to temporarily close their park as the family attempts to reevaluate their initiatives both familial and financial. Without their park guests and their “world-famous” alligator show, the Bigtrees begin to see their family for what it really is: heraldically speaking, the Bigtrees are no more indigenous than any average white Floridian family. As the novel progresses, the pomp and circumstance of the Bigtree line is tested as Ava and her siblings learn to adapt to life outside the mystique of Swamplandia!

Soon after Hilola’s death, a rival theme park opens called the World of Darkness. Creatively centered on themes of religious fear and damnation, the World of Darkness is swollen with overly simplistic, infernal rides. Guests (called “lost souls”) take turns down the digestive Leviathan, a slide that deposits souls into a red tinted, bubbling lake of fire.

Early in the novel, Ava’s older brother Kiwi leaves Swamplandia! to seek out his own financial independence, only to find himself vacuuming the Leviathan and lodged in the World’s abysmal employee housing. Ava and her older sister Osceola remain at Swamplandia! with very little adult supervision and take this freedom to explore the Bigtree property (their father had left for the mainland on an indefinite business trip). As children, Ava and her siblings grew up on rich family folklore, stories of distant relatives exploring through the mangroves. With Kiwi in the World of Darkness and the Bigtree sisters in the swamp, the novel is divided into two realms, each with their own powerful strain of spirituality.

At the library boat, Ossie borrows a tattered copy of The Spiritist’s Telegraph, a spell book with instructions for communicating with the dead. Considering the protective, homeschooling nature of the Bigtree family, at sixteen years old Ossie is desperate for any social contact, be it physical or astral. She begins disappearing at night and finally confides in her sister that she met a ghost and that they were in love. His name is Louis Thanksgiving and he was killed in the 1930s during an accident aboard his dredge boat, possibly the same boat that the girls recently found floating towards their house.

Swamplandia! is a very funny book, fueled by preadolescent zeal and wonderment. Russell pulls us so beautifully into the wry wit of Ava Bigtree’s narration that it is both a tremendous joy and a perilous heartbreak to watch her grow into and endure the mature trials she’s faced with.

By splitting the action of Swamplandia! between the swamps and the World of Darkness, Russell seems to set up these locations in opposition with each other, as if she will reveal that the spirituality of the swamp (faith in family and nature) will prevail over darkness in a fantastic victory. Surprisingly, Russell twists her swamp plot towards an even more nefarious end. Towards the final phase of the novel, Ava reflects on her childish imagination with devastating clarity: “I was a fairy-minded kid, a comic book kid, and I had a bad habit of looking for augurs and protectors where there were none.” It’s difficult to make out whether Russell believes that children should hold fast to these habits or grow out of them quickly, and this uncertainty ultimately holds the grand success of Swamplandia! down, leaving the book to toe the line ever-so-slightly between thoughtful and perplexing.

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