Friday, July 15, 2011

Swamp thing


Swamplandia is Karen Russell's first novel, and if you are like me and you have A Serious Problem with bugs, its going to make you feel all squirmy, seeing as how it's set in the Florida swamps. Ick! But it's also a very funny and surreal book.

Swamplandia! is the name of the Bigtree family's gator park. Swamplandia!, kind of the same era as the Weeki Wachee mermaids, features a bunch of alligators all named Seth and the famous Hilola Bigtree's alligator wrestling show. Hilola is the wife of Chief Bigtree, the son of an Ohioan who bought one of Florida's underwater farms, site unseen, then rechristened himself Sawtooth Bigtree and never left the swamp. The Chief has carried on this tradition, telling his kids that they're a new tribe of swamp Indian. The Bigtrees live on an island accessible only by ferry and the kids, teenagers Ava, Osceola, and Kiwi, help run the park, until the one-two punch of Hilola's death by cancer and the opening of a huge new modern theme park on the mainland, the World of Darkness, dries up the tourist business.

The family business tanks, and without Hilola, the family starts to disintegrate. Kiwi, an awkward nearly-eighteen-year-old, dreams of attending a mainland school and getting a college degree, despite not having a GED. He heads to Swamplandia!'s archenemy, the World of Darkness, and joins its legion of teenage workers. Osceola has become obsessed with ghosts and the underworld and becomes convinced that she's been possessed by the spirit of Louis Thanksgiving, the pilot of a dredging scow who died in the 1930s. With Chief Bigtree on a mysterious errand to the mainland, Osceola leaves home, and Ava follows on a nightmarish journey through the Florida swamp, with a creepy bird-charmer called the Bird Man and her pet albino alligator.

Russell's narrative switches between Ava, wandering the empty Swamplandia! with her sister and poling through the swamp on a skiff and Kiwi, in a fluorescent-lit hell in the bowels of World of Darkness, which (like, I imagine, all theme parks) has some very shady labor practices. Having spent his entire life in the swamp with only alligators, tourists, and his sisters for company, to say that Kiwi is awkward would be an understatement, although his wryly naive perspective is very touching. Meanwhile, Ava and the Bird Man navigate the treacherous swamps in search of the Eye of the Needle, which Bird Man swears is the opening to the underworld, although its not the dead but the living that menace Ava.

Swamplandia! has some fascinating tidbits about the history of Florida, from the Army Corps of Engineers' brilliant idea to drain the swamp by seeding it with strangler fig, which worked about as well as the New Orleans levees did. But for all of the novel's outlandish trappings, it's not an unusual story (which isn't to say it's not a compelling one). The Bigtrees are a family in pain, losing their matriarch and their livelihood at the same time, and facing the necessity of adapting or dying - something that, ironically, their alligators haven't done in millions of years.

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