Karen Russell’s debut novel, Swamplandia!, was one of three finalists for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the year that the board decided not to give the honor to any title – in essence saying that there was no novel published that year that met their threshold for the award. It was an embarrassing decision, one that may have hurt independent booksellers, a dereliction of duty reminiscent of the BBWAA puking all over itself in the 2012 Hall of Fame balloting – there had to be a “best” book, even if the overall quality of the titles in that year was lower than previous classes. Swamplandia! fits that description well – it’s a very good book, not a home run like Empire Falls or The Orphan Master’s Son, but more than good enough to win the award and a whole lot better than the 2011 winner, A Visit from the Goon Squad.
In the novel, Swamplandia! is an alligator theme park run by the Bigtree family on one of the Ten Thousand Islands off the coast of southwest Florida, most of which are uninhabited and which are connected to the mainland (in the book) only by a daily ferry service. (In reality, the largest island, Chokoloskee, is connected by a causeway, but that appears to be the only one with such a link.) When Hilola Bigtree, a mother of three and fierce alligator wrestler, dies of cancer, the business and the famiy begin to come apart at the seams. Her husband, the Chief, seems to get lost in a delusion of expansion amidst rising debt and new competition from a mainland park, the World of Darkness; Kiwi, their oldest child, defects to the mainland to work for that very competitor; Osceola, the middle child, falls in love with the spectre of a long-dead shipworker; and Ava, the youngest child and primary character, finds herself alone at the family homestead, faced with the daunting task of trying to save something out of everything collapsing around her.
Swamplandia! itself is a profound tale of death, loss, and disillusionment, as Ava, wise for her years but still fundamentally a child, feels her mother’s absence most acutely, with all three children setting out on different searches for something to fill the void left after Hilola’s death and their father’s abdication as a parent. While incorporating elements of magical realism, Russell never lets the story devolve into pure dreamscape or fantasy, and the two primary plotlines – Ava’s search for Osceola in the “underworld” and Kiwi’s sputtering coming-of-age at the hell-themed World of Darkness – resolve in ambiguous ways, especially Ava’s, as the denouement of her story left me very conflicted on whether that particular device was necessary to wrap up her story.
Ava herself is a fascinating character, a Flavia de Luce transplanted into a darker setup, where the father isn’t just absent emotionally but physically, and her precocity isn’t always such an asset. She’s intelligent and independent, retaining some of the emotional immaturity of a typical 13-year-old, responding with an admixture of fear and determination to the impossible situation in which her father and siblings place her. She and Kiwi are the only fully-formed characters in the book, with Kiwi providing more comic relief as the fish-out-of-water on the mainland, a home-schooled (self-taught, really) teenager with the diction of a character from 19th-century literature but almost no self-awareness or ability to function in the social environment of modern teenaged life. The symbolism of some of the rides at World of Darkness is bombastically silly, but these interludes also provide a needed break from the darker sections involving Ava’s journey into the swamps.
Russell has, as far as I can see, never spoken about the theme of disillusionment, but Ava’s storyline with Osceola functions as a strong metaphor for a break with religion, or at least the “old-time” religion of Biblical literalists. Osceola finds a book on spiritualism and follows it, blindly, into the book’s underworld – a place of uncertain location or even existence. Ava connects with a prophet of sorts, the “Bird Man,” and follows him, also blindly, in search of Osceola, and perhaps her mother, deeper into the swamps of the Ten Thousand Islands in search of the entrance to the underworld, a trek that leads to what I’ll only identify as a stark disillusionment for Ava and near-madness for Osceola, as well as a sacrifice that parallels the red heifer of the Hebrew Bible (notably Numbers:19). It might be a stretch to say that the book is itself anti-religious, as Russell hasn’t publicly voiced any such views, but it struck me as at least a strong allegory in opposition to blind acceptance of religious dogma and scripture.
Next up: I’m behind on my reviews, but I’m just about finished with Tom Acitelli’s The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution, which even has a whole section devoted to Delaware’s own Dogfish Head brewery.