Karen Russell double feature! See last week’s post for a review of her book of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.
Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! is a mythical romp through the Florida Everglades, complete with magic, danger, and ghosts. This novel, based on the short story “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” from St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, follows the tale of the Bigtree children as they struggle with the recent death of their mother (Hilola Bigtree, world famous alligator wrestler) and to keep Swamplandia!, their family’s alligator theme park, viable. As 13 year old Ava sets out into the swamps after her sister Osceola attempts to elope with a ghost, Kiwi Bigtree, the book-smart and life-stupid older brother, escapes to the mainland to try to find a way out for his family. Instead, he finds himself navigating the all too real (but, refreshingly hilarious) world of minimum wage jobs, crooked employers, and adolescent agony.
Russell creates, in the Bigtree children, characters that are sympathetic, but somehow just a few clicks away from realistic. All three of them have an undeveloped sense of intuition; they are all unable to clearly distinguish the good guys from the bad guys, the real from the fictional. Their uninitiated state allows the reader to enter and navigate the magical fictional world of Swamplandia! in a similar state: a state of open wonder, curiosity, and suspended disbelief. Although Russell gives us all the clues we need to discern the good guys from the bad guys in this story, we, like Ava, are reluctant to see things clearly, unable to pierce the veil of mystery and lush hope that Russell draws around her.
Russell stays close to the action throughout the book, but it is not necessarily a plot based novel: Swamlandia! is language based, and that language is grounded in local ecology. In fact, the Florida Everglades is an apt metaphor for the language in the book: lush, fecund, and dense. There is barely a sentence that does not bear the imprint of Russell’s distinct prose. The truly bizarre and unusual landscape of the Everglades comes alive in Swamplandia! through sentences like this: “The cloud of moths drew their darker blues across the pale egg of the sky.” The equally unusual inner landscapes of her characters are painted with the same charged brush.
Swamplandia! was one of the three works of fiction considered for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012, although the judges were unable to come to agreement on a winner, and none was awarded at all. Swamplandia! is an interesting, and worthy, choice for that award. While, on one level, this story appears to be a fanciful farce about a doomed alligator theme park, it is far more than that. Myth and allegory frame the story, and symbolism abounds. The writing is mature and fresh, the lessons learned both specific and universal, and the truth is as dark and disturbing as any truth can be. As Emily Dickenson wrote: “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant…. Truth must dazzle gradually, or every man be blind.” Swamplandia! is not short on the truth, but it does tell it with a mighty, swampy, reptilian slant.