by Karen Russell
Vintage, February 2011
Paperback, 397 pages
Karen Russell’s debut novel welcomes the reader to Swamplandia!, the premier gator-themed amusement park in the Florida Everglades, where tourists flock from around the world to watch alligator wrestling and to witness Hilola Bigtree’s famous “Swimming with the Seths” routine (all of the alligators are named Seth).
That is, until Hilola tragically dies, leaving her husband and three children to pick up the pieces. Without the park’s main attraction, Swamplandia! begins to fail as the family struggles to keep afloat on their secluded island home. Hilola’s husband, Chief Bigtree, withdraws from his children and moves to the mainland to find work, and Kiwi, the eldest child and the only son, defects to a new, rival park on the mainland in the hope of raising money to help pay his family’s ever-mounting debts. The two daughters, Osceola (aka Ossie) and Ava are left to their own devices on the island.
One day, the girls discover a book called The Spiritist’s Telegraph, filled with spells and “witchy psalms about a place called the underworld.” Osceola is fascinated and takes to wearing turbans and holding seances. What begins as a fun game to Ava progresses to a point that she is worried about her sister, who stays out all night communing with the ghosts that possess her — in particular, the Dredgeman, whom Ossie claims to be in love with.
When Ossie goes missing, presumably to join her ghost in the underworld, it is up to Ava to rescue her. The spunky 13-year-old protagonist sets off into the labyrinthine swamp to find her sister with the help of a mysterious character called the Birdman.
I have some mixed feelings about this book. I love love love the way Russell writes; her language is colorful and imaginative and just plain wonderful. She calls alligators’ teeth “icicle overbites,” for goodness sake! The only problem I have with this novel isn’t really a problem with the book itself, but with my expectations of the book. I’ve been enjoying kind-of-folk-story, verging-on-magical-realism works lately (The Tiger’s Wife, No One is Here Except All of Us, and I’m dying to read The Snow Child), so I didn’t bat an eyelash at the idea of a mystical birdman rowing this young girl to the underworld to find her sister, who is trying to marry a ghost. Cool beans. And then shit got real. Too real. I don’t want to give anything away to people who haven’t read the book yet, but if you have read it, please message me maybe? Because I finished reading this book weeks ago and I still can’t get it off my mind and I NEED TO TALK ABOUT IT. (Don’t worry, it’s not one of those I-need-to-unload-personal-problems things — I just don’t have real-life lit nerd friends to gush about books with, and this book needs to be gushed about.)
Okay, now that I’ve got that off my chest, I’d like to move on to one of my favorite things about the novel: the way it portrays family, especially the sister dynamic between Ossie and Ava (before Ossie goes cuckoo bananas and runs away, anyway). I see so much of my own relationship with my sister in the passages describing their interactions; the girls keep and share secrets, go exploring together, play made-up games, poke fun at each other, and crack up laughing over absolutely nothing. Ossie is the seemingly wise older sister who tends to explain things as if she knows everything and thinks Ava is a bit of a dolt. Ava, on the other hand, is the totally annoying little sister who always wants to tag along and who makes fun of Ossie’s “boyfriends”. Just the way they talk to each other, the tone of their conversations, is so familiar! I love it, and I think anyone who has a sister can relate to their relationship.
In the end, family is really what it all comes down to. Your family may be incredibly flawed (and probably is), but when you have lost everything else, they are the ones you have to turn to. Swamplandia! is a haunting novel with touching themes about the strength of family.