- Knopf, 336 pp.
God’s Little Everglade
Swamplandia! is a wonderfully bizarre patch of South Florida, located just beyond the reach of reality. It recalls the uncharted areas on 15th century maps which cartographers would populate with fearsome serpents and winged beasts.
“Here be dragons,” the Renaissance mapmakers would warn.
In the case of Swamplandia!, this is literally true. Swamplandia! is the home of the Bigtree clan, alligator wrestlers and backwoods holdouts from modern times. The Bigtrees live on the margins of the known world and that is part of the attraction for the tourists who come to see them grapple with dangerous reptiles and dive into watery pools filled with “Seths,” the family lingo for gators.
Part frontier settlement, part honky-tonk carney show, the Bigtree homestead is the creation of Karen Russell, a native Floridian and one of the most promising young writers in the United States. Swamplandia! is Russell’s debut novel. It follows in the footsteps of her acclaimed collection of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Since the title of her anthology refers accurately to the lead story, it is fair to describe this young author as not another “mainstream” writer.
St. Lucy’s Home is also significant because one of its short stories introduced the chief protagonist of Swamplandia!, the 13 year old, alligator wrestling, Ava Bigtree. Many of the characters, settings and themes of the new novel were there too, including a ghost-haunted older sister and a send-up of vacation theme parks.
In Swamplandia!, the rival theme park is called the World of Darkness. Its opening attraction is a giant water slide called “The Tongue of the Leviathan,” which “gulped whole grades of kids into the park.” Once inside, tourists, dubbed “Lost Souls,” get to frolic in a swimming pool known as the “Lake of Fire” and indulge in over-priced snacks like thirst-inducing Jumbo Magma sodas and Hellspawn Hoagies.
When the novel begins, the sinister “branding” efforts of the World of Darkness are starting to draw patrons away from Swamplandia!. Then Hilola Bigtree, the mother of Ava and her brother Kiwi and sister Osceola, dies. Hilola is the star attraction at Swamplandia!. Before the eyes of hundreds of gawking patrons, she springs from a diving board into the Gator Pit and swims through throngs of scaly reptiles to safety. This daily ritual left Hilola unscathed, but then she is seized by a more deadly predator, cancer. Hilola’s shocking, swift death leaves three grieving kids, an outwardly stoic husband, nicknamed “The Chief” because of the bogus Indian regalia he wears, and a debt-ridden tourist trap.
Swamplandia! is faced by another foe, as if competition from the World of Darkness is not enough. In one of its many ecological blunders, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers attempted to drain the nearby swamps and sawtooth grass savannas by planting an Australian tree, the Melaleuca, whose roots “would suck the Florida swamp dry.” Instead, melaleuca trees, grown from seeds showered from light aircraft in the1940s, had spread like a plague, killing native plants and creating vast stretches of wasteland. This is a very real problem in South Florida, today, with nearly 400,000 acres of pine woods, cypress swamps and sawtooth grasslands overrun by the “strangler species.”
Soon after Hilola dies, Ava and her sister, Ossie, are left alone on the island. The tourists no longer come and alligator wrestling has been temporarily “suspended.” Kiwi has decamped to work at the World of Darkness and the Chief has left as well, ostensibly to raise funds to save the family enterprise.
Ava and Ossie divide their time between trying to contact Hilola via an Ouija board and eradicating melaleuca saplings which have sprung up on the borders of the island. One day, they see an abandoned boat, with a tall crane used to haul up buckets of muck. This dredge had been used in another ill-fated campaign to make the swamps into an economically flourishing area. During the great Depression of the 1930’s, teams of sweating, mosquito-swatting workers had navigated these dredge boats through the swamps in a misguided effort to dig a canal. This craft is drifting along, abandoned, decades later. But what had happened to the crew?
Ava and Ossie board the dredge and find rusted tools, a box of fossilized lemon candies and a cabin filled with hundreds of moths, which, when the door is opened, swarm out as if “a ghost was tuning itself like a luminous string above me.”
The girls find a WPA work shirt stitched with the letters “L.T.” The work shirt becomes a passport to the next world for the impressionable Ossie.
Ossie had been reading an old book on spiritualism and soon begins communicating with the ghost of L.T. His name, she tells Ava, was Louis Thanksgiving and he had been a teenage crew member on the dredge. The Dredgerman, as the girls call L.T., had been killed by buzzards. That does not prevent Ossie from falling in love with him. A short time later, she disappears on board the dredge which floats off to parts unknown.
Ava secures the help of a wandering outcast named “The Birdman” to paddle deep into the Everglades in search of her sister. The entrance to the Underworld is rumored to be out in the swamps near two mounds of shells that had been raised by the Calusa Indians long-ago. The place is called “the Eye of the Needle” and Ava believes that Ossie has gone there with the ghost of L.T. But before Ava convinces The Birdman to go, she repeats her mother’s “Swimming with the Seths” dive into the gator-filled pool. It’s her way to show that she has the courage required to travel to hell and back.
I took a final breath and I was flying. Water flooded my nostrils. When I opened my eyes, I could see the Seths’ dim shapes from below, their great bellies that look like prehistoric pinecones and their dinosaur feet. I could see the glint of a Seth’s claws, curled motionless at the mountains of it sides – an alligator’s tail does all the work of swimming … A three- or four- hundred-pound Seth sailed over my head, and I watched a thin jet of bubbles rising from my own nostrils. Far above me peach ovals opened on the water – a column of milky illumination from the stadium lamps. They seemed to gasp back their light as I swam for them, like good dreams on waking.
Ava makes it to dry land and safety. She and the Birdman set out in a small skiff to search for the Eye of the Needle to bring Ossie back to the land of the living. It is not clear, initially, if the Birdman is just another regional eccentric, a “glade cracker” just trying to make it through another day in the swamps. Or is there a hidden blade of menace in his remark to Ava when they set off, “Nobody can get to hell, without assistance, kid.”
The journey of Ava and the Birdman to the Eye of the Needle, a surreal venture if there ever was one, is described in a narrative of gritty realism. By contrast, Kiwi’s efforts to fit into what passes for the real world of 21st century America seems more of a descent into the infernal regions. The randy, teen ethos of his fellow workers at the World of Darkness and the corporate rapacity of his bosses drive Kiwi to the brink of desperation. Kiwi, self-educated on old textbooks from an abandoned boat that had once brought books to his backwater home, is branded as “gay” because he reads. In a brilliant stroke on Russell’s part, Kiwi’s colleagues call him Margaret after glimpsing a book he is reading on his breaks, Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa.
Russell’s novel is by turns, Coming of Age in Swamplandia! and Coming of Age in the World of Darkness. Both Ava and Kiwi demonstrate rare gifts of courage, counterbalanced by naiveté and inexperience. Both lose their innocence, and though the three siblings are reunited after appalling ordeals, the delightfully weird Bigtree clan will never be the same. They have no home to which they can return.
There is no saving Swamplandia! from the invasive mainland culture represented by the World of Darkness and the sterile rows of utterly similar apartment blocks and family homes spreading over the landscape beyond it. Kiwi, who had once dreamed of escaping Swamplandia, starts to think differently.
Now that Kiwi had at last made it to a suburb it was easy to want the swamp. What was this fresh hell? The World of Darkness seemed like a cozy and benign place compared to the sprawl of these stucco boxes, these single-family houses. Kiwi saw no coconuts and no creeks.
The passing of Swamplandia!, a crass, hokey “hicksville” where live chickens are suspended from wires to get the gators to leap for their supper, hardly merits more than a moment of regret. But Russell’s evocation of the disintegration of the Bigtree clan is profoundly moving. Arms linked together, Ava, Kiwi and Ossie embrace “in a panic of love.” The mutual devotion of the Bigtree children is as heartfelt a tribute to steadfast family bonds as the ordeal of the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath or the Finch children in To Kill a Mockingbird.
That may seem like giving an “Easy A” to a novelist with but one short story collection and single off-beat novel to her credit. But such is the sustained power of Russell’s prose, that Swamplandia! never falters. Alternating currents of earthy realism and flights of fantasy carry the weight of absolute conviction, enabling us to believe that if paradise can be lost, then a memory of it can also be preserved.