Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Swamplandia! Where there are Gators and Exclamation Points!

picture of oranges resting on white snow, with 'Orange January' written at top of the image

Karen Russell

The Bigtree clan runs an alligator themed theme park on the western edge of the Everglades. No Native American blood runs through their veins, but they put on a good show for the tourists, complete with attendant "family history" museum of outgrown clothes and constantly changing placards. Their performances are so intense that even the Bigtree children are unsure of where the edges of their reality lie.

Hilola Bigtree married into the family, became the star of the show, and produced the third generation of Bigtree offspring. She's an award winning alligator wrestler and daredevil diver. For every evening performance, in the dark of night, she stands high on a precarious diving platform, a single spotlight illuminating her form as she swan diving into a gator infested pool for her signature performance, "Swimming with the Seths."

Unfortunately for the Bigtree family and their theme park, Hilola is diagnosed with cancer and quickly succumbs to the disease. Afterwards, the rest of the family members rapidly begin their descent into their own private hells.

Things get weird when Osceola, the oldest daughter, finds an occult book that convinces her she has the ability to commune with the dead. No one knows quite what to make of her new hobby. Ava, the younger daughter, half believes in her sister's ability and is hopeful they will be able to contact their mother. Chief Bigtree, their father, dismisses it as a fantasy of a boy crazy teenager. Kiwi, the oldest Bigtree child and only boy, is more worried about how they are going to afford to stay on their island paradise.

One by one, they leave Swamplandia! and head out to some place they hope offers salvation. But alone, they lack the skills and knowledge they need to navigate their new worlds.

Things get really weird when Ava sets off to find Ossie, who has run away with Louis Thanksgiving, her boyfriend that's been dead for 70 years. Can the mysterious Bird Man really help Ava sail to the underworld and rescue her sister? The unexpected injection of the supernatural leaves you wondering what's real and what isn't.

I'm a native Floridian, so I loved reading about "old" Florida and how it's changed over the years. The federal government certainly played its part, for better or (mostly) worse through actions of the Army Corps of Engineers that tinkered with the environment and Indian removal programs that terrorized Native Americans and pushed them further and further south, deeper into the swampy Everglades.

The appropriation/invention of Native American lore made me really uncomfortable, but I can certainly imagine a family taking this on if they think it's going to bring in the dollars. So it rang true, if discordant. Other parts of the book, however, seemed to push how far I could suspend my disbelief.

Want more like this? Try:*
  • Henry James, The Turn of the Screw. Another book where you can't be sure what is real. Is this a ghost story, or the story of a young governess dissolving into madness? 
  • Patrick D. Smith, A Land Remembered. Fictional tale of three generations of Floridians, beginning with the arrival from Georgia of Tobias and Emma in the mid 19th century
  • Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Florida in the 1920s from the perspective of and African American woman. The great Okeechobee hurricane of 1928 is a focal point.
*This new feature is inspired by Eva over at A Striped Armchair, who often includes "Suggested Companion Reads" in her posts  on books. I can't promise I'm going to do this every time I talk about a book, but I'm going to try to make it a somewhat regular part of my posts.
After much internal debate, I feel it is necessary to add a SPOILER for potentially triggering plot point:

There is a sexual assault that is not gone into with extreme detail, but it is certainly graphic enough.



Amy said...

This sounds like a very strange book, but it has me intrigued. I love the idea of adding companion books at the end of your post. I find that if I really love a book, a lot of times I want to read something else like it. Great review!

MJ said...

@Amy: Thanks! I like the idea of companion reads, too. I just hope I can think of what would be good :-)

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

I've been curious about this one after it showed up on so many Best of 2011 lists. I'm not sure it's quite for me, but it sounds interesting!

MJ said...

@ Kim: It is interesting, but a bit uneven. Not bad, but not a favorite.