Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
11 February, 2014
We called all our alligators Seth.
Twelve year old Ava Bigtree is the youngest of the Bigtrees, a faux Seminole/Miccosukee tribal family who runs Swamplandia!, an alligator park, just off Loomis County in the Florida Everglades. Hers is a busy and jolly family, her father Chief, the overall manager, her mother Hilola, acclaimed alligator wrestler and star of the show, her grandad Sawtooth who started their love-affair with the Seths, and her studious brother Kiwi, dreaming of going to college, and changeling sister Osceola, the only one who is pale and blond.
Swamplandia! begins as Hilola succumbs to cancer and this signals the slow disintegration of their family venture as the tourists dry up with the disappearance of the star act. As another more commercial venture, The World of Darkness, opens up nearby, the Bigtrees start to struggle financially. Ava’s world begins to crumble as Kiwi runs away to Loomis County searching for ordinary life and Ossie starts dating ghosts. When their grandfather is sent to an old people’s home and their father goes away on one of his ‘business’ trips to save Swamplandia!, it is left to Ava to save her sister, who plans to elope with her spectral fiancé, and revive Swamplandia!. For Ava has discovered a red Seth hatchling amongst their brood and has a secret plan. But everything goes awry when Ossie disappears and Ava is left to venture into the swamps to search for her with the help of the strange Bird Man, a casual worker who occasionally clears the area of buzzards.
This is a strange tale. One that alternates between the fierce imaginations of a family living off the grid and encroaching reality as the kids grow up. The death of their mother is the catalyst which sends their idyllic life off-kilter and brings them in line with modern life. Their naiveté is shocking and as the tale progresses with Ava’s search for Osceola, there is a growing sense of trepidation which is mirrored by Ava’s concern for her sister, but one that is totally different for the reader. What at first seems a childhood free of suffocating rules slowly coalesces into an unruly and irresponsible upbringing, the only saving grace being the children themselves. It’s frightening to see the consequences of irresponsible parenting.
What one is left with is the tragic consequences of the children’s coming-of-age facilitated by the unbelievable selfishness and self-delusion of the adult Bigtrees. Did the Chief not realise what he was doing leaving his kids behind? As the kids’ illusions crumble and they slowly realise their life on Swamplandia! was all smoke and mirrors, what is heartwarming is the love they still feel for each other and the place they call home.
This isn’t a gushingly sad book. It’s actually very funny, if not a little long, and Russell is adept at sliding in some comedic moments with such flair that, like Swamplandia!, it masks the grim reality of what is happening to the Bigtrees. She lulls you into a false sense of security which is suddenly stripped just as Ava’s perception shifts. It’s deftly done and packs an awful punch.
Stories with animals aren’t really my thing but I loved the way Russell makes the Seths a central part of the Bigtree story. And don’t you just love the way they call the alligators Seth?
Ultimately, Swamplandia! is a bildungsroman, a bittersweet coming-of-age novel where over one hot summer, a family’s dreams and hopes are swept away as reality finally kicks in.
Swamplandia! sharply divided my book group for which I chose the book. It was lauded widely (in the New York Times and New Yorker) and Russell was picked as one of the recipients of the MacArthur ‘genius’ grants last year and is also one of the 20 Under 40 Granta authors, so expectations were very high. With comparisons to Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter, we all agreed that there were flashes of brilliance in her prose and that it’s certainly a very original novel but many of us found it very slow and hard going. I think there is a lot more going on in Russell’s story and I may have missed all the subtext such as the importance of the colour of the red Seth, allusions to Dante in The World of Darkness and the hellish swamps, or the reality behind Chief and Hilola’s marriage, what exactly does the Bird Man symbolise, etc. which I think re-reading Swamplandia! would probably unearth. I am, however, curious to read the short story from which this novel was born and will be checking out St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.
Have you read Swamplandia! and if so, what did you think?