Book review: “Swamplandia!”

Swamplandia!The book review juggernaut that is Just Well Mixed rolls on, this time over literary wunderkind Karen Russell’s 2011 debut novel Swamplandia!

Swamplandia! is the story of the unraveling of the Bigtree Tribe, a family of deeply white ersatz Native Americans who operate a down-on-its-heels alligator-wrestling theme park on a patch of Florida swampland. The heart of the operation is its star attraction, Hilola Bigtree, who dives into a pool full of alligators while recorded music plays and her husband, the Chief, follows her with a spotlight. Crowding around their feet are the Bigtrees’ three children: Kiwi, a studious 17-year-old boy; Osceola, a distant, romantic 16-year-old girl; and their younger sister, 13-year-old Ava, who dreams of growing up to be a champion alligator wrestler like her mother.

When the story begins, this family is intact and life in Swamplandia! goes on as it had since the ’30s, when the family patriarch, an Ohio coal miner named Ernest Schedrach, bought the land sight unseen and re-christened himself “Sawtooth Bigtree.”  But their happy stability is quickly struck by two hammer blows: Hilola gets cancer and dies at the too-young age of 36, and a newer, more modern theme park (“The World of Darkness”) opens and steals the tourists Swamplandia! used to attract. As the park’s business dwindles and its debts mount, each of the three Bigtree children strikes out to try and secure the future, with consequences that will change the family forever.

I went into Swamplandia! with some reservations, mostly because the customer reviews on Amazon were so lukewarm. (As of this writing, the average review is just 3.2 stars out of 5; quite low for a critically buzzed-about book.) Now that I’ve finished it, I find those lukewarm reviews baffling, because Swamplandia! is brilliant — a gorgeous fantasia that flirts with magical realism without ever letting its feet drift too far from the ground.

The first thing to say about Swamplandia! is that Karen Russell is a hell of a writer. She has a facility with language that is downright startling, finding ways to describe things that are breathtakingly fresh and creative. Most of the book is written from the perspective of Ava, the youngest Bigtree child, and Russell manages to capture in her both the matter-of-fact magic that a child sees at work everywhere in the world and the tougher, more prosaic worldview that we take on when childhood is over.

Russell has also found the perfect tone for her story. It’s elegaic, but never grim. It would be easy for a story about a family going through what the Bigtrees go through to feel oppressively hopeless — or to overcorrect and ladle on maudlin, never-say-die sentimentality. Swamplandia! avoids these hazards with an almost jaunty confidence. The story goes to some pretty dark places, but in doing so it never feels cheap or exploitative; Russell earns our trust with her command of the narrative, and pays it back with interest.

And it’s funny! While the overall arc of the story is a sad one, Russell finds ways to lighten the mood with smart, silly details: the cornball sincerity of the Bigtrees’ family museum; the internal workings of the World of Darkness, which combine Dante’s Inferno with Office Space-style corporate banality; the strange interactions the various Bigtrees have with the mainlanders their journeys force them to interact with. The occasional absurdity provides a perfect balance for the story’s more gothic elements.

This is the part of the review where I would normally talk about the things I didn’t like. In the case of Swamplandia!, though, I can’t really think of any. It’s a wise, witty, funny novel, you should definitely read it, end of review.

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