Swamplandia! – Karen Russell

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Swamplandia! How to sum it up? I honestly can’t. Karen Russell’s debut novel has had some terrific press, great reviews, inclusion in end-of-year “best” lists and super-hyper blurbs. It is ambitious. It has a lot of vocabulary. It evokes a part-real, part-imagined rural Florida world stuck in the 50s. It has a plucky young heroine on the cusp of adolescence who is a first-person narrator. Ava will remind you of other plucky young girls like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. But she isn’t Scout; this isn’t To Kill a Mockingbird and, after a few pages, the contrived vocabulary forms its own kind of mire.

The Bigtree family lives on an island off the southwest Florida coast in an area known as the Ten Thousand Islands. It is a real place—I’ve spent time there—and most of the “islands” are little more than clumps of mangrove reaching out into the Gulf of Mexico. The family members are not really Bigtrees. Their name was made-up by a father who found it convenient to leave a rather checkered past behind and reinvent himself as a pseudo-Seminole Indian. The mother, Hilola, is the star of an alligator show for tourists in a shabby gator theme-park called Swamplandia with daily alligator wrestling, daredevil swimming in a pool of alligators and other quintessentially old Florida tacky tourist trap entertainment. The kids sell snacks, tickets and help out. Chief Bigtree, AKA Dad, presides over all. Then mom gets cancer and dies.

Things fall apart just before they really disintegrate. Without mom—no show. No more tourists–no money. An even cheesier theme park opens on the mainland and siphons off the dwindling revenue.  Big sister Osceola wanders off into mental illness, Kiwi, the brother runs off to find a mainland job, get a real education and rescue his family, dad heads for the mainland for some unspecified activity called “finding investors.” Ava is left to salvage the lot. She’s barely thirteen. She seems to be the world’s last remaining naïve innocent. Her vocabulary is wholly inconsistent with a naïf, raised without education, in an economically-marginalized, not-even-blue-collar family. No one has her back and, instead of salvage, she finds damage. Big time. The kid is savaged.

The story goes nowhere for long stretches and then it bogs down in the swamp. Nothing good at all happens to these people. They are on the losing side of life and they remain stuck there. Life wasn’t too great for openers and then it got worse. Sometimes the language was so inventive I had no idea what it meant. Clever prose that won’t quit can be a roadblock that interrupts a story’s flow.

Swamplandia! mixes elements of magical realism with an account of a doomed family and some accurate depictions of backwoods, makeshift tourism, all delivered via the viewpoint of an idiosyncratic girl punctuated by first-person narration from her desperate-to-be-conventional brother, Kiwi. Karen Russell can play with words and she may have some spectacular books in her. But I found it a tough slog through a mucky swamp and I’m not sure this is one of them.

Swamplandia! (Vintage Contemporaries)   Karen Russell | Alfred A. Knopf   2011

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