2011 Catapult Notable List – #10
#10: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Starting off the 2011 Catapult Notable list is a late add, a squeaker that came in through the back door when everyone’s backs were turned: Karen Russell’s first novel, Swamplandia! Russell isn’t really a newbie – she received substantial acclaim for her 2006 story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and was named one of the vaunted New Yorker “20 Under 40” last year – which is, of course, how she really ended up on my personal radar. This book proves her mettle, friend.
Swamplandia! is one of those quirky, funny, sad, bizarrely poignant books that lingers and lingers and lingers… long after you’ve put it back on the shelf. A good half to 3/4 of it is narrated by a 13-year old girl – often a red flag, but the voice is delivered here with such a stunning clarity and honesty that I hardly noticed her age. Emma Donoghue put it well in her NYT review: “Her first-person narration is not a transcription of a 13-year-old voice, but an evocation, in adult language, of a barely adolescent mind-set.”
Ava Bigtree and her family own and operate an alligator-wrestling theme park on their island in the swamps of the Florida Everglades. At one time, Swamplandia! was billed as “The Number One Gator-Themed Park and Swamp Cafe in the area,” I’ll have you know. Russell had me with the first line, “Our mother performed in starlight,” but solidified it further a couple pages later:
We leased an expensive billboard on the interstate, just south of Cape Coral: COME SEE “SETH,” FANGSOME SEA SERPENT AND ANCIENT LIZARD OF DEATH!!! We called all our alligators Seth. (“Tradition is as important, kids,” Chief Bigtree liked to say, “as promotional materials are expensive.”)
How could I stop reading a book featuring 98 alligators named Seth? Ava’s mother, Hilola, the park’s headlining, high-diving, gator-pit-swimming star attraction, has just died, leaving Ava, her 2 siblings, and their father alone on Swamplandia! The island is only accessible via ferry and once the headliner is gone, the tourists stop coming to spend their vacation money. (Rather, they hit the new apocalypse-themed “World of Darkness” park on the mainland.) Within a few months, operations have been suspended on the island and Ava’s brother, Kiwi has left to try to make some money on the mainland. Her father, who has dubbed himself “Chief” Bigtree, on account of a falsified familial, Native American heritage, heads to the mainland on “a jaunt” to take care of some urgent business (involving something he calls “Carnival Darwinism”), leaving Ava and her sister Osceola, alone with the Seths. Ossie has taken up communing with the spirit world via her Ouija board and claims to have fallen in love with the ghost of a turn of the century “dredgeman” named Louis Thanksgiving. Okay, no problem. Until Ossie steals off to elope with Louis, somewhere out in the swamps, leaving Ava completely alone. Convinced that Ossie is making her way to the entrance to the underworld, where, naturally, she and Louis can be together, Ava enlists the help of the odd, crow-wrangling swamp-gypsy, the Bird Man, to help track Ossie down.
So, you know, it’s just your typical, run-of-the-mill American family tale.
Like I mentioned earlier, Ava’s spot-on narration is what drives the story. All throughout, I took the world she was relating to me at face value – somehow, Russell was able to convince me to put aside any adult thoughts about the situation Ava was in and just accept what was happening as being truthfully transcribed by this 13-year-old girl. (Who has never left her alligator island for more than 24 hours.) So when reality sets in and the magic wears off, Ava reverts to being a scared teenager who is out in the middle of nowhere with a dude in a bird cape. But in the end, as odd as they all are, it is the strength of the Bigtree family that prevails – despite inevitable tragedies, life goes on as long as your family is there to shoulder the burden along with you.