“Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell

“Swamplandia!”  by Karen Russell (2011) – 316 pages

 The BigTree family in “Swamplandia!” are not real Indians; they dress like Indians and have fake Indian names all for the show.  They are originally from southern Alabama.  About ten years ago, they bought this rundown shabby alligator farm in the Everglade swamps of southern Florida.  They opened it to the public and even put together a daily show for the people who came.  For quite a while they did all right and even had a souvenir store where they sold alligator caps, t-shirts, and toys. 

 There is Chief BigTree, the father.  There is the mother Lola BigTree who is billed as “the foremost lady alligator wrestler in the world”.  Then there are the three children, the 17-year old boy Kiwi,  the 16-year old girl Osceola, and the youngest daughter 13-year old Ava who tells much of the story.  Early on in the story, the mother Lola gets cancer, and one day when she is starting her alligator wrestling show, she dives into the black swamp pond and doesn’t comes up.  Ava wants to take over the alligator wrestling, since her mother had taught her the techniques.

 Soon a new more modern amusement park called “The World of Darkness” opens up on the mainland of Florida, and it quickly takes most of the customers away from Swamplandia!  Soon Kiwi leaves home and gets a job at The World of Darkness.

 To me the Swamplandia! story is irresistible.  Some of the reviews I’ve read refer to the story as magical realism.  I disagree.  I’m here to tell you that there really are woman alligator wrestlers, and there are families running alligator farms.  The daughter Osceola believes in ghosts, but there are a lot of real people who believe in ghosts.  There is talk of ghosts in the novel, but no actual ghosts. I would call Swamplandia “improbable but not impossible” realism.   Between that and magical realism, there is a world of difference.

 Karen Russell makes this story come alive and since she provides all the details, I had no trouble believing this story.  Each member of the family is skillfully depicted as a unique person with their own peculiarities.  So we have this colorful family living a very exciting life.  This is a spectacularly vivid debut novel by Russell. 

As I read “Swamplandia!”, I kept thinking about another writer I discovered almost 35 years ago, that world class juggernaut from Baltimore, Maryland, Anne Tyler.  What do Karen Russell and Anne Tyler have in common?  They both write about strange oddball families and they seemingly effortlessly make each member of these families come alive.  Both of these writers got published at a young age. Tyler had her first novel published at age 23 which is actually younger than Russell who got her first book published at age 26. 

 I remember reading the reviews of Anne Tyler back then, and her writing stunned the critics just like Karen Russell’s writing does today.  First I read Tyler’s “Celestial Navigation” and “Searching for Caleb”, two of her best, and I knew I had to go back and read her early novels.  I read Tyler’s early “A Slipping-Down Life” which was kind of rough and jagged, but it was powerful.  One of the many pitfalls for Karen Russell to avoid is to not become too smooth and polished.  A good story needs some rough edges. 

 There are some differences between Tyler and Russell. Tyler has written only a few short stories, not enough to fill a book, while Russell has already written a highly regarded book of stories, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”.  There are scenes in “Swamplandia” that are darker and more troubling than anything Anne Tyler has ever written.

 In “Swamplandia!”, Karen Russell has written a fully imagined novel that will last.

Advertisements

3 responses to this post.

  1. Interesting point about the “improbable but not impossible”. I’ll admit that I typically prefer the pure magical realism as opposed to the “let’s suspend your belief” kind. It seems easier for me to accept a completely different world rather than just let the author do whatever they feel like within the realm of the improbable. Contradictory? Um…

    Like

  2. Hi Biblibio,
    Like nearly everyone else, I was completely bowled over by the magic realism of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’. I still think Solitude was a great novel, but generally I’m not very excited by magic as a plot device, too convenient. I can understand your preference for a ‘completely different world’ in a novel, but I prefer the improbable to the impossible.

    Like

  3. […] Tony’s Book World: “To me the Swamplandia! story is irresistible. Some of the reviews I’ve read refer to the story as magical realism. I disagree. I’m here to tell you that there really are woman alligator wrestlers, and there are families running alligator farms. The daughter Osceola believes in ghosts, but there are a lot of real people who believe in ghosts. There is talk of ghosts in the novel, but no actual ghosts. I would call Swamplandia “improbable but not impossible” realism. Between that and magical realism, there is a world of difference.” […]

    Like

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: