Book Review: Swamplandia!
My first experience with Karen Russell was through a short story, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” read in class at my boarding arts school in Michigan. The story included wolf-girls howling and learning to walk on two feet instead of four, feeding the ducks rather than eating them. Yet the fantastic element of it was what made it feel so eerily familiar to the world of my high school. Russell made it possible for me to believe that writing about animals forced to become girls yearning to be wolves could capture exactly what it was like to be surrounded by budding fourteen- to eighteen-year-old artists in the woods in the snow.
Swamplandia! is not just a title, but the childhood home of Ava Bigtree, daughter of the Chief and of her alligator-wrestling mother Hilola. This is a book about the end of paradise for Ava and her family and their daily shows of gator wrestling and diving on the island where they live. This is a book about a girl who falls in love with a dredgeman’s ghost and a boy who goes into indentured servitude in the hell affectionately known as The World of Darkness. Though Russell is a Florida native and the book is set in Florida, it’s the potential of the place rather than the reality that seeps into Swamplandia!. Instead of becoming hung up on the actual modern practice of alligator wrestling, Hilola Bigtree — former Swamplandia headliner and mother — dives by moonlight into the gator pit in front of a faceless cheering audience.
In the first chapter, Ava Bigtree says, “If you’re short on time, that would be the two-word version of our story: we fell.” Even without this line, there is little surprise when things continue going downhill for the Bigtrees. You keep reading because of the dreamlike people and places they encounter in the process. Swamplandia! is no cannonball. It’s a careful descent into the make-believe of our childhoods.Through frank and innocent Ava, Russell has managed to create a surreal world that still seems like our own. She doesn’t shy away from casinos, water parks, suburbs, cancer and hospitals or airplanes. This is not the timeless literary fiction where invention of cell phones and computers seem to have gone unnoticed. Swamplandia! feels modern and it feels real. If you took a long drive out of the city and kept going down some dirt paths until you found a humid patch of water and low-hanging trees, a town next to it that nobody had ever heard of, it seems possible that you could find this world and this story waiting there in the flesh.