Thursday, January 10, 2013

Swamplandia! Review

Swamplandia! - Karen Russell


The best way to describe this book is like the Florida swamps where the story takes place. It moves kind of slow, but the longer you stay, the more you are sucked in. Some parts flow quicker than others and though it is mostly open and bright, it can sometimes lead you through some pretty dark spots. Also, there are a lot of alligators.

Thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree lives on an island, one of Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands, where her family wrestles alligators for tourists in their self-run amusement park, Swamplandia! The story begins, though, with the beginning of Swamplandia’s decline. Ava’s mother, their star wrestler, dies of cancer, and a rival amusement park opens on the mainland.  As Ava and her siblings struggle with the loss of a parent, the park struggles with a loss of revenue. Ava’s self-proclaimed genius brother, Kiwi, flees to the mainland in hopes of landing a job to send money home and discovers the joys of minimum wage work. Her teenage sister, Osceola, begins communicating with the dead and goes on dates with ghosts—or so she claims.

The eccentricity of the book’s setting reminded me somewhat of E.L. Konigsberg. The story does, however, take a rather dark turn towards the end, which serves to mark the shift in the characters' attitudes and I could go into some literary analysis ripe with dichotomies and symbolism here, but that would be spoiler-y, and besides this is a review not an essay.  Basically, I think I see what the author was going for...though it also sort of put a damper on the whole tone of the book. I don't want to give too much away because what I really liked about the book was the ambiguous IS IT REAL OR IS IT NOT feeling--is Osceola really dating ghosts? Is the entrance to the underworld really in the swamp? I went back and forth a number of times throughout the novel. Too often I read books that attempt to do similar things, but the author lacks the subtlety for me to really question both sides.

As I mentioned, the book does begin slowly and what I initially thought was the Big Plot Event doesn’t happen until almost halfway through. Looking back, I realize that the Big Plot Event, really isn’t the main plot of the story, and that’s why it happens so late. The story is about the decay of Swamplandia! and with it, the Bigtree Family’s way of life. It is also about the swamp and one of the things I really enjoyed about this book was that Russell completely brought me there.

Now, the most I've experienced of Florida swamps was a short trip to the Everglades. It began as an ambitious and highly romanticized adventure into one of our nation’s great parks and ended as a half-hour tromp across a humid boardwalk where I spotted one lazy and bemused alligator, and then a hike through a wooded area that was comprised of 30% air and 60% mosquitoes.

The point is, I was previously aware of  how much I dislike being near swamps (yes, I realize I am a massive baby).  But Russell doesn’t just transport you to the swamp, she transports you through the eyes of Ava Bigtree, and so her familiarity and love of her surroundings comes through in the descriptions as well. I kept catching myself thinking “I really should check out the ‘glades again” (though perhaps that just the 20-degrees-outside talking) before remembering the stupendous fiasco my trip was.

Aside from the ending where things get a bit...uncomfortable, the majority of the book is fairly light and there's a good smattering of humor, particularly in Kiwi's chapters. Overall,  Swamplandia! really draws you into the environment and it certainly beats trudging through the swamp myself.

4/5 Fancies.

1 comment:

  1. Loved this richly told tale. The voices of the characters were so truthful that I felt as if I had been to at least one show at Swamplandia! and met them all. Great read.
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