Monday, February 21, 2011

Delightfully defied expectations

by Karen Russell

Not that many books actually defy my expectations. Between cover and jacket copy, you usually have an idea of what you’re getting into. This was not true of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! Both the quirky premise and the cover’s cheery alligator (looking like an illustration straight out of a children’s book) had me expecting a lighter, comic novel.

Swamplandia! is the story of an unconventional family, the self-made Bigtree Tribe of Florida. The family tradition of reinvention originated with the paternal grandfather, who left his troubles and debts behind in Ohio to become “Sawtooth Bigtree.” Now the current Chief Bigtree presides over his three children, 17-year-old Kiwi, 16-year-old Osseola, and Ava, the youngest at 13. Swamplandia is the name the family has given to both their Everglades island home, and the gator theme park that is their livelihood. These children are rare hothouse flowers raised and “home-schooled” in this idiosyncratic environment, where they think nothing of fleecing a few tourists, but are actually incredible na├»ve in the ways of the broader world.

I still might have found my quirky comic novel within these pages, but this family has just lost its heart. Hilola Bigtree, beloved mother and star attraction of Swamplandia, has succumbed to cancer at the age of 36. Now the tourists are gone, and the family is falling apart. The Chief clearly loves his children, but they’re all limping along in an environment of benign neglect without proper meals, clean laundry, adequate supervision, or a plan to save their faltering home.

The family is fracturing. First, Kiwi absconds to the mainland, with a vague plan to try to save the family home. Next the Chief leaves on one of his extended mainland “business trips,” the first since Hilola’s passing. Ossie is left behind to mind Ava, but she has been behaving more and more erratically, and in fact, it is lion-hearted Ava who must protect the older sister who claims to be dating a ghost. When Ossie fails to return home one night, Ava knows that she must track her eloping sister through the swamp.

It is more than a hundred pages in when the novel’s most enigmatic character is introduced. The mysterious Bird Man will serve as Ava’s guide through the swamp and will ferry her to the gates of the Underworld to save her sister. And as Ava and the Bird Man make their journey, the reader is left to wonder: Is he her salvation, or just another predator in the swamp?

Karen Russell’s writing is truly noteworthy. She brings her oddball characters fully to life. Chapters are narrated alternately by Ava and Kiwi, each of whom has a rich internal life. Her prose is uncommon and evocative:
“Out here the mosquitoes were after me for red gallons—you could see clouds of them hanging above the grassland. I’m sure they are still out there hovering like that, like tiny particles of an old, dissolved appetite, something prehistoric and very scary that saturates the air of that swamp. A force that could drain you in sips without ever knowing what you had been, or seeing your face.”
The above quote is a great example of the menacing tone that makes up a good part of the book, but other sections are magical or haunting, or, yes, humorous—most notably in the chapters dealing with Kiwi’s exile to the mainland theme park, The World of Darkness, which is an absolute hoot in its over-the-top ridiculousness.

The first third of this novel introduced us to this clan of ersatz Indians and their unusual world. It was enjoyable, but I was mildly disappointed in the novel’s failure to meet my expectations. Things started to pick up in the middle. My interest and curiosity were piqued once the action got going. By the final third of the novel I was turning pages at a lightning pace, just hoping that each member of this endangered tribe would somehow find their way home. Swamplandia! was never what I expected, but it was awfully good.

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