Fat Books & Thin Women


Review (Illustrated!): Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!

With thanks to Sara Lautman for the totally amazing Ava and Birdman illustration.

Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! is a book occasionally bursting with energy, more often bogged down by a cast of characters who are rarely as fully imagined as they deserve to be. Set in the failing alligator theme park of the title, Swamplandia! follows the Bigtree family as they struggle to find a way out of debts incurred since the death of their star attraction, mother to Ava, Ossie and Kiwi Bigtree, and since the opening of a more accessible theme park on the mainland near Swamplandia! Swamplandia! is often too clever for its own good, reveling in its oddities, but Russell’s creation of these theme parks is perfect and imbued with affection for the sort of rundown attractions the Bigtree family has to offer, mostly feats of nerve and showmanship (when wrestling an alligator, you have to push the audience to believe that you may lose, so that your win is worth something).

Russell’s story opens with the death of Ava’s mother and the failure of Swamplandia!, so it is mostly in memories that we get a picture of the park in its successful days. The park in the time of the novel is marked not only by its failures, but by the way the family relations form around it and are distorted by the park’s troubles. For most of the novel Kiwi Bigtree and the family patriarch, Chief Bigtree, are trying to earn enough money on the mainland to revive their park, but these stabs at career are made in private, marking how shameful this need for money is. Ossie and Ava, meanwhile, stay back at the swamp, Ava caring for a baby alligator (or a “Seth,” as the family calls them), Ossie falling in love with a ghost and precipitating one of the more chilling and rushed moments of Ava’s narration.

Russell’s novel is a capable one, a fun read, but repeatedly skims past the moments at which she could have dug deeper. The idea of Ossie’s love for a long-dead ghost, a man hired to dredge a canal through the swamp, provides countless opportunities for the sort of pathos Kelly Link evokes in “The Great Divorce,” a story about a failing relationship between a ghost and a man; but Russell never chooses to do more with Ossie’s relationship than let it reside in the novel for the sake of its oddities. The same could be said for much of the novel; as cute as it is to have a white-as-bread family originally from Ohio take on the name “Bigtree” to restamp their identities, Russell never explores that, or attempts to turn the name into anything more than a quirk of the family.

Kiwi, Ava’s older brother who heads to the mainland to save Swamplandia! by working at the very amusement park that has stripped them of their business, often reads as the “truest” of Russell’s characters, in his efforts to learn and navigate a world he has never been part of. Living off the mainland, the Bigtree family’s children have never attended school, and Kiwi’s ambitions (to get his GED, attend college and then graduate school, and become a scholar) collide with the “real world” in heartrending fashion, as he not only fails to wow his teacher at night school, but falls into debt to the amusement park he is employed by and struggles to learn to speak an English that is at times incomprehensible to him. Through Kiwi Russell provides a fuller picture of life at Swamplandia!, of the ways the park has failed Kiwi and his siblings even as they dream of saving it. Though Ava, the youngest Bigtree sibling, in particular embraces the park and her role of “alligator wrestler,” the children – especially Kiwi – have long dreamed of some more average life, as when Kiwi draws up his own report cards as a child: “He modeled them after a Rocklands Middle School report card, which he had purchased from his obese mainland associate, Cubby Wallach” (22).

What Russell does well is to capture the feel of a childhood lived apart, of trying to find a place in or between those worlds of the swamp and the mainland. When Ossie runs off with Louis, her ghost boyfriend, and Ava decides to take chase with a man she’s just met, the reader can’t help but be horrified and pray that this won’t be a narrative we’ve heard too many times before. But to a girl like Ava, a girl in training to be a better alligator wrestler than even her mother, that the swamp is so full of places that the door to Underworld can be lost in it, as the “Bird Man” tells her, seems not only possible but plausible.

Russell doesn’t take Ava’s story, or this idea of the Underworld’s swamp entrance, any further than she needs to for the sake of plotting. Swamplandia!‘s last pages feel rushed, the turning of the last page a shock. When Ava says, “I don’t believe in ghosts anymore” (314) she seems to be saying not just that she doesn’t believe in ghosts, but that in some way she doesn’t believe in those things that made up her childhood any longer, in that world so distant from what is possible on the mainland. In the last pages of the novel, though, Russell’s hand is apparent, swooping in to save characters stranded by their own lack of experience with the world and belief in things that could only read as real to children who grew up in a world that itself was barely believable. Russell’s work is readable and intriguing for those oddities she places with such confidence; but it may not be worth reading until she can use her stranger characters and settings to do something other than act as baubles for the reader.

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And don’t forget to visit Sara’s tumblr to see more of her comics and art!

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