The exclamation mark that punctuates the title of Karen Russell’s debut novel Swamplandia! (Random House, 2011) tells you a lot about the run-down alligator park the book is named after. The cheesy excitement of that exclamation mark, a draw for “mainlanders,” as the book’s precocious young narrator Ava Bigtree calls them, is brought to ecstatic life in the novel. To Ava that exclamation mark is a heartbreaking truth, summing up her enthusiasm for this crumbling park and the alligator-wrestling spirit. The exclamation mark could also accurately describe the novel itself, a hypnotic, beautifully written adventure.
Expanding on a story written in a collection of her short stories, Russell fills her novel with a carnival of eccentrics. Russell’s novel is in some ways familiar, focusing on a family trying to stay together as turmoil sets in. After the death of Hilola Bigtree (“ the Swamp Centaur”), the star of Swamplandia! and matriarch of the Bigtrees, Ava, her siblings, and their father Chief Bigtree, are forced to adapt. The characters are wonderfully quirky, from Osceola Bigtree, who dates the ghost of a dead dredgeman due to the lack of young men on the deserted island they live on, to Kiwi Bigtree, the genius brother who discovers that on the mainland, it is not cool to read Margaret Mead. And, of course, Chief Bigtree, who fakes his Native American heritage in order to give the alligator park more authenticity; the Chief describes the family as “our own Indians.” And all of these characters are tossed into difficult situations, such as Kiwi’s attempt to make a living in the competing theme park, “The World of Darkness.” Ava is left by herself to fend for the park, and she takes it upon herself to string her family back together, including trying to return her sister from the underworld.
Ava proves to be a compelling protagonist. Her innocence is portrayed masterfully through her intense fascination with the swamp and nature, an ideal voice to utilize Russell’s stylistic gifts. And as Ava, of course, comes of age by the novel’s conclusion, her wondrous view is a little less sweet.
But this plot, as compelling as it gets, mostly takes the backseat to Russell’s stunning prose. She has a careful eye for analogy and crafts a memorable, surreal portrait of the swamp and its inhabitants. Seths, the Bigtree slang for alligators, have mouths of “icicle overbites.” When describing the call of the bird hunter, it is “a braided sound, a rainbow sound…a single note held in an amber suspension of time, like a charcoal drawing of Icarus falling.” Or a simple moment of describing a cloud of moths is almost undeservingly pretty:
Outside our porch had become a cauldron of pale brown moths and the bigger ivory moths with sapphire-tipped wings, a sky-flood of them. They entered a large rip in our screen. They had fixed wings like sharp little bones, these moths, and it was astonishingly sad when you accidently killed one.
It is Russell’s elegant writing that lends her book so much life. But it is hard not to be wound up in the humanity of the plot, the straining ties that bind the Bigtrees. And as Ava journeys through the swamp, it is impossible not to feel swept into this new world.
Unfortunately, Kiwi’s adventures on the mainland don’t have the same magnetic pull as the swamplands. Kiwi’s interactions with shallow mainland teenagers, while sometimes providing refreshing bits of humor, rely too heavily on youth culture clichés. Still, it’s impossible not to feel for Kiwi as he struggles to make ends meet in his pennies-paying job. And when Russell delves into the life and death of the Ossie’s dredgeman, it is absolutely engulfing. He is described so fully, so lovingly, that it’s completely reasonable that his ghost could still live on; how could a character as fully realized as Louis Thanksgiving simply die? And at the book’s emotional conclusion, Russell doesn’t just wring the reader’s emotions by dialing up the drama. The conflict feels as organic and vivid as the swamp, whose dense humidity nearly seeps out from the pages.
Russell grew up not far from the swamps in which her book takes place, and the living environment of the swamplands fits her rich imagery. It will be interesting to see if she moves from this environment in future writings.
Regardless of where she goes in the future, Swamplandia! is a resounding testament to Russell’s talent. With ghosts and the underworld running throughout the novel, the supernatural plays an important role. But with the endless stretches of melaleuca trees and the swirling maze of rivers, the swamp sets a perfect atmosphere for these unnatural situations. As Ava sets sail to the underworld, she believes in ghosts. The most magical thing about Swamplandia! is that it makes the reader believe, too.