Swamplandia!: A Novel by Karen Russell (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. 336 pp)
Karen Russell is an American novelist and recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.” She received her B.A. in Spanish from Northwestern University and earned her M.F.A. from Columbia University.
Do you recall the needless danger of your youth? Did you run away from home only to make it as far as your tree house in the backyard? Did you decide to make a cross-country trip over summer break with your friends without a dollar in your pocket?
I’m sure most of us did something stupid when we were younger. Do you remember why? There seems to be an aura of youth where decisions could never truly have bad consequences. Yet, at some point, we realize the luster of youth has faded. We see this theme emerge in Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!
Swamplandia! explores the odd dynamics of a swamp family in the wake of the death of the matriarch. The Bigtree family runs a derelict alligator wrestling farm called Swamplandia! in a Florida island a quick ferry ride from the mainland.
The Bigtrees are in a funk after Hilola, the mother and primary alligator wrestler, succumbs to cancer:
“Mom fell through the last stages of her cancer at a frightening speed. She no longer resembled our mother. Her head got soft and bald like a baby’s head. We had to watch her sink into her own face. One night she dove and she didn’t come back. Air cloaked the hole that she left and it didn’t once tremble, no bubbles, it seemed she really wasn’t going to surface. Hilola Jane Bigtree, world-class alligator wrestler, terrible cook, mother of three, died in a dryland hospital bed in West Davey on an overcast Wednedsay, March 10, at 3:12 p.m.” (7).
The small but steady crowds of yesterday quickly dissolve and the economics of operation and survival on a small island become untenable. Given such a scenario, the Bigtree patriarch, Chief, leaves the children at home as he visits the mainland in search of investments.
The sisters Ava and Ossie Bigtree have each other, while their older brother, Kiwi, decides to venture to the mainland as well to get a job that might help Swamplandia! He also wouldn’t mind a high school education.
Left to their own devices, Ava and Ossie roam the island. Finding a run-down dredge from yesteryear, Ossie builds a fantastical, occultist ghost story around the deaths of the dredgers.
Ava, too, becomes ghost-focused:
“But in fact I was like Ossie, in this one regard: I was consumed by a helpless, often furious love for a ghost. Every rock on the island, every swaying tree branch or dirty dish in our house was like a word in a sentence that I could read about my mother” (55).
Ossie’s spiritual dabbling eventually leads to her belief that she will marry a ghost and disappear. When she doesn’t return home one night, Ava decides to explore the swamp in search of her lost sister. Needing help, she enlists the mysterious Bird Man that arrives at Swamplandia! every once in a while to remove the unneeded birds from the island.
Despite the family’s divergent path, can fate find a way to bring them together?
Sometimes, a story leaves you speechless. Not for good or bad reasons, mind you. It’s just there. Frankly, I’m not sure what to make of Swamplandia! Karen Russell writes well; I can see her talent clearly on the page, but there’s something about this novel that falls flat.
If I had to take a stab at the murkiness of my feelings, I would probably suggest two aspects of the novel that felt slightly problematic.
For starters, the Bigtree family appears as a pseudo-Native-American family.
“Grandpa, who was born Ernest Schedrach, the white son of a white coal miner in Ohio, bought the land after losing his job at the Archer Road Pulp Mill, which was just as well because he was tired of the pitiful wages, tired of his ears ringing like Sunday church bells all shift and of his bleached vision caused by blinking into the chemicals. He changed his name to outwit his old boss. It turned out her owed a sizable amount of money to the mill foreman. He picked ‘Sawtooth’ in homage to the sedge that surrounded his island; ‘Bigtree,’ because he liked its root-strong sound” (24).
Given the ills we see continually in society around the re-appropriation of cultures by the dominant culture, such a position made it difficult to fully embrace the characters.
Secondly, and potentially more off-putting, Russell depicts a rape in the novel. The scene is disgusting and she surely has succeeded in creating the desired effect in the reader, but it was almost too much.
I believe a key component in Swamplandia! surrounds the loss of idealism we all encounter when we grow up. The Bigtree family, in many ways, represents everyone that has grown up. How often have we made poor decisions in our lives but didn’t see the consequences?
I think personally to the times I would climb big rocks around my Grandparent’s cabin on Orcas Island. Looking back, I can’t believe I didn’t kill myself. I believe Swamplandia! ponders this notion on the many ways we deceive ourselves into adventure and escape it even if we weren’t aware of the dangers.
Nevertheless, Swamplandia! could not overcome its problems.
Verdict: 3 out of 5