Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Russell's whimsical world earns its indulgences.
Thu Jan 20 2011
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
Gator wrestling! Fake Indians! Teenagers dating dead men! You didn't miss the titular punctuation, did ya?!? The eccentricity fairly oozes from Swamplandia!, an island theme park nestled deep in the Florida Everglades. It's run by the Bigtree clan, whose thoroughly nonnative paterfamilias is known as "The Chief." The tale of gator-fightin' teenager Ava Bigtree is adapted from a short story in Karen Russell's hailed debut, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and there's bighearted charm to this bayou, buoying the novel even when it sinks a little under its own quirk.
The damp, lost little island finally takes a toll on the Bigtree kids after they lose their mother to a prosaic death from ovarian cancer. With a sympathetic voice, Russell exposes the emotional ignorance of the barely socialized clan. Big brother Kiwi heads to the Florida mainland, where he's swallowed into hell (almost literally, at a rival amusement park called the World of Darkness). Lovely Osceola slips into a romantic, psychotic haze, leaving only narrator Ava to dust the family museum and look after the baby gator hatchlings.
Ava's eventual journey deeper into the swamp is at turns mystical and embarrassing, and Russell's ability to straddle the fantastic and the depressingly believable is her greatest strength. Still, the charming details—a whole town is built on stilts; every alligator is named Seth—obstruct Russell's attempts to wrestle with demons, reptilian and otherwise. Yet the tether between the Bigtrees and the real world is almost always evident, and the story's wild, boundless heart outweighs its missteps. Swamplandia! earns almost every indulgence it takes. Exclamation point.
By Karen Russell. Knopf, $25.