by Karen Russell
Reviewed by Nathan Weatherford
I was taken with Karen Russell's Swamplandia! from page one, and this had largely to do with the voice of Ava Bigtree, the 13-year-old protagonist who calls one small island off the coast of Florida home. This island is also her family's titular theme park, where, for years, tourists from all over have come to watch her mother, Hilola Bigtree, swim and wrestle with the family's large brood of alligators (or, as they call them, "Seths"). After training alongside (and idolizing) her mother every day since she was very young, Ava has the dream to one day be strong enough to take Hilola's place in the gator-wrestling show. But, when Hilola unexpectedly dies (which we learn at the beginning of the book), her surviving family is abruptly thrust into a much less understandable world: the park's main attraction doesn't exist anymore and the Bigtrees are forced to confront the real "mainland" world head-on.
While Ava's oldest brother, Kiwi, has a completely scientific mind and her middle sister, Osceola, is obsessed with mysticism, Ava treads a pragmatic line between the two as she attempts to navigate her family's post-Hilola destitution. Kiwi makes up his mind to go work on the mainland after a heated conversation with their father, the Chief, about how to fix the park's financial straits. Osceola retreats into more ethereal realms upon finding a library book called The Spiritist's Telegraph and, in short order, seemingly has a ghost for a boyfriend. When the Chief heads to the mainland for a couple weeks of "investor meetings," the girls are left behind to fend for themselves on the island. Then, when Osceola goes missing, Ava is forced to embark on a journey through the wilderness of Florida to find her sister.
Ava's voice and perspective on life -- which reminded me of nobody so much as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird -- is a wonderfully twisting melange of hilarity, naivete, wonder, and terror that snakes its way through her first-person narration. Her quest to find her sister takes up much of the second half of the novel, and it's also where Karen Russell's supernatural lyricism kicks into high gear. Journeys to the underworld and encounters with phantoms are all filtered through Ava's unique perspective, considered and processed in the same way she catalogs the native plants and animals she encounters throughout the Ten Thousand Islands. Russell's descriptions of the desolate saw-grass covered landscapes, the parasitic melaleuca trees, and the endless clouds of bloodthirsty mosquitoes turn the backwoods of Florida into a quasi-mythical world, painting Ava's search for her sister in epic strokes. I was spellbound during these passages, completely wrapped up in Ava's fate.
Less spellbinding were some interstitial chapters dealing with Kiwi's exploits on the mainland, as necessary as they may have been to the overall plot. Kiwi gets a job at The World of Darkness, a hellishly-themed amusement park that has been siphoning tourism away from Swamplandia!, and he also enrolls in a GED program (having grown up on an island his whole life, his education is understandably limited). While I appreciated the irony of Kiwi attempting to provide for his family by working at a park in direct competition with his family's own and liked that Russell found a way to have both literal and metaphorical "underworlds" in the novel, I found myself reading these sections noticeably more quickly to get back to Ava's viewpoint. Kiwi's efforts to fit in with his new coworkers, funny at first, tended to blend together after a while, his trials and tribulations a compact mirror held up to Ava's widescreen ordeals. Kiwi's experiences dovetail nicely with Ava's by the end of the book, so it's definitely not sloppy plotting on the author's part -- it's just not as captivating.
Ava Bigtree is one of those characters that stays with you for a long time, and I definitely recommend giving Swamplandia! a read. Nobody but Karen Russell could have written a compelling bildungsroman set in the Florida wilderness and with a protagonist who's a 13-year-old alligator wrestler searching for a vanished sister who may or may not be dating a ghost. Now that's what I call magical realism.