Saturday, May 14, 2011

Dark Corners in "Swamplandia!"

Karen Russell’s second book “Swamplandia!” is a novel of the south, set deep in the swampy groves of Florida. The lush plant life and entangled landmasses permeate the book’s atmosphere and provide a climate not often explored in fiction or even by non-fictional people. The story is about children and the timbre of the tale is dark, an effect deepened by the innocence of the children’s voices.

“Swamplandia!” is full of oddities. The title refers to the amusement park/tourist attraction located off the mainland run by the Bigtree family. The Bigtrees are not an ounce Indian but they don the garb and raise alligators, or Seths as they call them, and impress their audiences with death defying performances. Ava, our primary narrator, is the third generation of the Bigtree dynasty and a witness to its collapse. She is the youngest member of the alligator wrestling family, baby sister to her brother Kiwi and sister Ossie.

Their mother dies at the outset of the novel and Ava doesn't quite know how to deal with the fact that it was cancer that killed her, though she defied death regularly during her alligator swims. Her mother’s tragic but mundane demise disappoints the tourists and without the star of the most popular attraction, the audience to dwindles.

The appeal of the Bigtree theme park is further diminished by the establishment of the sinister World of Darkness on the mainland. The new park is host to a vast array of disturbing rides and the slick, manufactured nature of the entertainment is something Chief Bigtree looks down on. But Ava’s father, while a safe presence, has no grasp of how to care for his children and when Kiwi runs away to the mainland to help bail out the family, the Chief leaves Ossie and Ava on their own soon after.

The three children are displaced by the loss of their mother and they take very different tacks to manage the situation. Their attempts to embrace and escape their legacy are central to the story and tainted by darkness.

Ossie is dreamy, the middle sister. In the wake of her mother’s death she begins to obsess over, and eventually consort with, ghosts. Thick in the margins of adolescence, Ossie becomes enamored with a young dredgeman, Louis, who died decades before she was born. Ava listens to her sister’s recitation of Louis’s tale (perhaps the best section of the novel) and is swept up in the romance but never believes the way Ossie does, and can’t discern the limits of her sister’s imagination.

When Ossie disappears into the everglades, Ava begins her own odyssey to find her. Her guide is a sinister, mystical guy called Bird Man, who claims he can lead her to the underworld and retrieve the sister she has lost. Russell has asked us to suspend our disbelief to minor degrees throughout the book and by this point we want to trust in the Bird Man as much as Ava, even though our better judgment tells us to be wary.

Parallel to Ava’s adventures through the slippery waterways, is Kiwi’s exposure to mainland culture. The bright, homeschooled boy is used to being the star of his surroundings and is suddenly thrust in the judgmental mediocrity of teenage life.
Kiwi is dealt the surprise of different uncertainties, neither more nor less prickly than Ossie and Ava’s precarious involvements.

Russell constructs a strange world for her protagonists and deftly guides the reader around its contours. The distinction between fantasy and reality is tenuous in the worlds of the Bigtree children and Russell expertly reminds us of the appealing possibilities that accompany this fluidity as well as the dangers.

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