Thursday, February 10, 2011

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! is the much anticipated first novel by Karen Russell.  This is one of the big literary entries for the year.  The story is the outgrowth of one of Russell's short stories from her collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.  She is a 29 year old writer and was selected in 2010 as one of the New Yorker's 20 Under 40 and previously by Granta, a British literary journal, as one of the Best Young American Novelists

Swamplandia! is the name of the Florida Everglades alligator theme park, which is owned and run by the Bigtree family.  Chief Bigtree, the patriarch of the family, poses as a Native American tribesman and creates a history and corresponding museum based on it.  The family consists of the Chief and his wife, Hilola Bigtree, and their children, Kiwi, Osceola and Ava. 

As the novel opens, we watch Hilola Bigtree, a renowned alligator wrestler, perform her legendary act: diving into and swimming through a pit of crocodiles.  Hilola transforms from a doting mother into a larger than life performer.  Several pages later, Hilola dies from ovarian cancer, and without its headline act, Swamplandia! must compete with a new corporate theme park, World of Darkness.

The family silently struggles with Hilola's death, ever mounting debt and the shattering of their mythic existence.  The Chief escapes to the mainland to search for investors to reinvent the park.  Kiwi, the eldest son, flees the swamp to earn a high school degree and take a low wage job to save the park.  His struggle to integrate into mainland teenage life, having grown up in the cloistered swamp, provides a welcome diversion.  Osceola is carried away on a spiritualistic journey, falling in love with the spirit of a deceased depression-era swamp dredger.  Ava, with an interloper known as Bird Man, tries to rescue her sister from the underworld, where Osceola has gone with her spirit boyfriend.

The narration alternates between Ava (in the first person) and Kiwi (in the third person), but this is Ava's show.  Although she is only thirteen, Russell presents Ava in a highly sophisticated and developed manner, not simply in the voice of a young teenager. 

Russell's writing and word choice are powerful, precise and vivid.  ("Ghosts silked into our bedroom like cold water." "...a hog-necked man with a high Sunday collar, his eyes a colorless sizzle like grease in a pan, half his face erased by the dark barn.") She has a sophisticated mastery of language and successfully paints a magical and mythical picture of the Bigtrees and the Everglades

Recommendation:  Russell's use of words and sentence construction are worth reading by themselves.  It is high impact writing.  She is a writer to watch, and her accolades are well deserved.  If you want a book that moves or is plot driven, pass on this.  This is neither an easy book to read nor one that moves quickly. 

Other Reviews: Nomand Reader and Mookes and Gripes.

Click here for a recent NPR interview with Karen Russell.

A reading by Karen Russell from her short story collection.

1 comment:

  1. "Swamplandia" is, and will remain, one of my favorite books. Well written, but above all, the best characterization of a young girl, born and raised in the deepest part of the Florida Everglades. Using her newly discovered talents, this girl navigates these Everglades on her own, and not only survives, she triumphs.. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in excellent characterization, or, particularly, a primitive part of the Everglades, home of alligator circuses!
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