Karen Russell’s 2011 debut novel, “Swamplandia!” is a dark, hilarious thrill ride that chronicles the disintegration of a pseudo-Native American family and a plucky, precocious 13-year-old girl’s bizarre journey to save them and herself.
Swamplandia! is a tawdry amusement park on an unspoiled island off Florida’s Gulf Coast. The main attraction is Hilola Bigtree. Tourists fill the amphitheater to witness her daring dives from a platform into alligator-infested waters. Bathed in a spotlight, Hilola each night swims through the gators to safety on a small stage suspended over the gator pit. The alligators never get Hilola, but cancer does, claiming her life at the age of 37. Her death and the emergence of a mega amusement park on the mainland called The World of Darkness send the Bigtree family into a spiral of debt and despair.
Chief Bigtree leaves for the mainland on a vague mission to raise money to reboot the park with a “Carnival Darwinism” theme. He leaves Ava Bigtree, the main character, on the island with her older sister, Osceola “Ossie” Bigtree, 16, and her older brother, Kiwi, 18. They are left to fend for themselves. Then Kiwi leaves to take a job at the rival World of Darkness, a sort of dystopian Disney World.
Readers of Carl Hiaasen’s satirical takedowns of Florida will recognize the same currents running through Russsell’s work: corporate and government plundering of the environment and the spoiling of the splendiforous natural beauty of the Sunshine State. But that’s not the real story here. The bigger story here is Ava’s incredible journey–a loss of innocence made more suspenseful by Ossie’s sudden infatuation with a ghost named Louis Thanksgiving, a dredgeman who died in the 1930s.
When Ossie disappears along with a dredge barge the two sisters had discovered earlier, Ava knows where she is headed: the land of Ten Thousand Islands, where the underworld is located. There, Ava hopes to not only find her sister and her ghost groom, but she convinces herself that her mother is there as well. Ava has no way to reach the underworld, until a mysterious figure called the Bird Man shows up on the island and offers to take her there.
This is where the story’s fragile grip on reality seems to slip away, but Ava’s sense of wonder and a sharp turn back to reality save it from devolving into paranormal nonsense.
What also saves this story is Russell’s scintillating portrayal of Ava as both self-aware and acutely tuned in to the world around her. Passages like this one left me wanting to applaud: “I was thirteen years old when the end of Swamplandia! began in earnest, although at first I was oblivious of the dangers we now faced–mom was dead, so I thought the worst had already happened to us. I didn’t realize that one tragedy can beget another, and another–bright-eyed disasters flooding out of a death hole like bats out of a cave.”
Some readers may find this book too outlandish. It worked for me because I put trust in Russell’s ability as a writer to take me on a magical ride and bring me back to dry land.