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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Karen Russell: "Swamplandia!"

Author: Karen Russell
Title:  Swamplandia!  
Plot Type: magical realism
Ratings: V-3; S-3; H-4
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (2011)

     This book is not strictly paranormal fiction according to my own definition, but...it does have ghosts, a touch of magical realism, and a whole lot of fangs (alligator fangs, that is, with "icicle overbites"what a great image). I couldn't put this book down. What a wonderful, brilliantly written story.

     Swamplandia! is a worn-out theme park on an island off the South Florida coast. Run by the Bigtree family for decades, Swamplandia! is suffocating in debt and losing tourists to the World of Darkness, the brand new, technologically superior theme park that just opened on the mainland. W of D is like a dark and sinister Disney. Its main attraction is Tongue of the Leviathan, in which tourists slide down a spongy pink tongue into a whale's belly. Another attraction is the Lake of Fire, a subterranean swimming pool with water dyed a hellish red.

     The Bigtree family (not Indian, but descended from an Ohio coal miner who changed his name) consists of the Chief (Samuel), his wife (Hilola), and their three teen-age children: Kiwi, the oldest (17) and the only boy; Osceola (Ossie, 16), the dreamer; and Ava, the youngest (13). Hilola is the star of the show, with her dive into an alligator-infested pit. She and the kids also wrestle alligators. 

     The children are home schooled and get much of their reading material from the Library Boat, a wreck that is filled with moldy old booksfree to all takers.  The book that gets the plot moving is The Spiritualist's Telegraph, probably  written during the spiritualism fad that swept through the U.S. and Europe in the mid-1800s. Mythology and history make up a good portion of their reading, and the story balances both of those with cold, hard reality.  

     Ossie soon immerses herself in the spiritualist world, believing that she is clairvoyant, searching for answers in her Ouija board, and disappearing into the swamp for nighttime rendezvous with ghostly "boyfriends."  Kiwi disapproves of Ossie's spiritualism; he considers himself to be a self-taught genius. He works diligently on building his vocabulary and his knowledge base, with the goal of attending Harvard someday soon.  Unfortunately, Kiwi is attaining his knowledge in a vacuumstraight from the book with no one to guide him. He misunderstands concepts, mispronounces words, and uses archaic phrases straight from the ancient Library Boat books.  Ava is fascinated by, and somewhat fearful of, Ossie's spiritualism, but she also respects Kiwi's book-learned intelligence. 

     Just before the story begins, the family begins to disintegrate. Hilola dies from cancer and the children's grandfather is placed in an assisted living facility on the mainland. Kiwi is disgusted with his father for dreaming of a come-back for Swamplandia! Believing that he must make his own way in the world, he goes off to the mainland and takes a minimum-wage job at the World of Darkness. In an interview, Russell compares Kiwi's move to the mainland to an astronaut going off to a strange planet. The Chief also leaves, going off to the mainland to raise some money and leaving Ava and Ossie on their own.

     Ossie sinks deeper and deeper into her ghost-filled world and finally disappears into the swamp, leaving a note saying that she and her "boyfriend" are going to the Underworld. Ava is determined to find Ossie and enlists the aid of the Birdman, a local eccentric who reportedly uses magic to drive hordes of buzzards away from the swamps.  Ava figures that the Birdman can use his magic to take them to the Underworld. The remaining two thirds of the book mostly follows Ava and the Birdman on their odyssey, with intervening chapters about Kiwi's life at the World of Darkness, which doesn't go very smoothly.  Ava is the first-person narrator of much of the book, showing us a life that seems both (a bit) ordinary and and (a lot) weird. Russell does a great job of presenting the kids as intelligent and thoughtfulnever strange or crazy (except for Ossie's spiritual delusions).  In fact, the whole family is presented sympathetically, even the Chief, with his failure to confront reality.

     In a recent podcast, Russell says that the story contains elements of Homer's Odyssey, Twain's Huckleberry Finn, and Dante's Inferno. She includes a number of mythological allusions in the story, with the River Styx being an important metaphor.

     The story is compelling, and Russell effortlessly weaves the history of South Florida into the plot, adding to its richness.  Her evocations of Florida's swampland and mainland are flawless. Russell's writing reminds me of John Irving's early work, with its quirky characters, strange life styles, dark humor, and tragic overtones.

     Here is a quotation from Carl Hiaasen's review on amazon.com:  "Having spent many days in the Ten Thousand Islands, I was enchanted by Russell’s dream-like descriptions of the tangled and serpentine creeks, the funky and exotic flora, the long stare of circling buzzards. Her prose is both shimmering and stark: 'A huge hole in the middle of the ceiling opened onto a clear night sky; it looked as if some great predator had peeled the thatched roof back, sniffed once and lost interest.' Or the way she describes a 'cauldron' of moths with 'sapphire-tipped wings, a sky-flood of them…They had fixed wings like sharp little bones, these moths, and it was astonishingly sad when you accidentally killed one.' ”

1 comment:

  1. Swamplandia is so imaginative but still feels like something that could happen, in a weird sort of way. Karen Russell not only has a creative mind, she sure can write.
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