Book Review: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Christine Ethier REVIEWS

Swamplandia! by Karen Russellswamplandia

At first glance, Karen Russell’s debut novel seems to be very long on atmosphere. This may, in fact, be enough. The details of the Florida swampland, its history, yes, but also its flora and fauna, its smells and its sounds are all rendered with such rich realism that the birdsong cries in your imagination and the heat and brackish water resonates on the back of your palette. It is at this point that the reader will no doubt realize that there is enough magic in the setting to warrant the reading of the novel. But it is also at this point that she will realize that this is not all there is.

 The story of Swamplandia!, told by the Bigtree tribe’s youngest child, 12-year-old Ava, describes the family-run theme park whose commercial life is coming to an end after the death of its main attraction, Ava’s mother, and the simultaneous arrival of a large mainland theme park that has more modern bang for its tourist attraction buck. As the business falls deeper into debt, each member of Ava’s family reacts to the impending tragedy. The chief of the Bigtree tribe, an original Ohioan with not a drop of native blood, goes off to the mainland ostensibly to raise funds to keep the more authentic Swamplandia! afloat. At the same time, Kiwi, the son in the family, leaves the island and enters into an unholy alliance by working for the rival theme park. Meanwhile, Ava leaves on a search of her own looking for her sister Osceola who seems to have left home to elope with her ghost lover. Ava’s companion on her journey is the Bird Man, an increasingly ominous character who is hired locally to remove buzzards from the swamp.

 The journey may sound disjointed but it is wonderfully linked with clever plot devices and grander themes – the power of a mother who wants to hand down her legacy to her children is fully realized in the mother’s relationship with Ava, the overriding strength that comes from the love and unity of a family is celebrated, and the way that geography and the entire environment shape the lives of the generations that live in concert or in conflict with it resonates. However, what is most central to the book is the relentless internal conviction of its female characters, whether it is the mother Hilda, more and more weakened by cancer, who presses on in her alligator wrestler persona for as long as anyone could or her child-woman daughter who will take on even the most malevolent journey to rescue her older sister and reunite the family.

 Although the story focuses on preteen Ava, and her considerable struggles, some of the themes are extremely adult. There is real danger waiting when the otherworldly, haunting atmosphere of the swamp clashes with the stark reality of the ultimate assault which is extremely adult in nature. It is above all an empowering book for the teens and preteens who are mature enough to engage with the material but parents can and should expect to have some discussions with any young person who has this book on her personal reading list.

 It may seem a strange contradiction but Russell is both a brilliant literary artist and also a work in progress. If this first novel is any indication, there will be many more exciting things to come from this gifted young American. Swamplandia!  won many accolades including the 2009 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation and a 2010 appearance on The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40″ list.  Russell herself, who had already published a book of short stories entitled  “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” in which Ava Bigtree makes her first appearance, made the  2005 New York Magazine’s  list of 27 impressive New Yorkers under the age of 26.

 Since these two first works, she has published another book of stories, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove, and a novella entitled “Sleep Donation.”

 Readers should be excited to read them. I know I am.

Christine's photoChristine Ethier is a textbook author, web writer, communication consultant, and retired university English instructor.  She was born in Peterborough ON and now lives in New Brunswick with her unparalleled husband and two wonderful fur babies.


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