A modern day hero’s quest combines with a coming of age story when Ava Bigtree embarks on a journey to save her family in Swamplandia!. A mix of magic and reality, Karen Russell’s novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize.
TEACHER REVIEW | Angela Fasick
American literature is full of dreamers, scalawags and saints. Swamplandia!, Karen Russell’s debut novel, offers a full complement, beginning with the patriarch, Ernest Shedrach. Fired from his job at an Ohio pulp mill and on the run from creditors, he buys a piece of Florida, sight unseen, and christens himself Sawtooth Bigtree.
But the joke is on Bigtree when he finds himself the proud owner of a gator-infested island swamp. Undaunted, Bigtree turns his life’s second act into an actual performance, and from these humble origins, Swamplandia! grows. Paying customers crowd the two-mile Reptile Walk and the stadium surrounding the Gator Pit, where 98 captive alligators swim alongside Hilola Bigtree, Sawtooth’s daughter-in-law.
Ava, Hilola’s daughter and the narrator of the novel says, “For a thousand shows, we watched our mother sink into the black water, rise. For a thousand nights, we watched the green diving board quaking in the air, in the bright wake of her.”
At 13, Ava sees her grandfather and her mother as mythic figures (she is helped in this by her father, the Chief, who advertises Hilola as the “Swamp Centaur”), but she loses both polestars in the novel’s first chapter when Hilola dies at 36—not by a gator, but from cancer—and Grandpa Sawtooth’s advanced dementia lands him in the Out to Sea Retirement Community.
These losses are compounded by the opening of World of Darkness, a rival amusement park whose “Tongue of the Leviathan” swallows patrons whole. In addition to the whale, the park offers “escalator tours of the rings of Hell, bloodred swimming pools and boiling colas.” The Bigtrees are suddenly wrestling with opponents much fiercer than their own demons, and the survival of Swamplandia! is at stake.
The Chief throws himself into far-fetched money-making schemes, while Osceola, Ava’s older sister, Ouija-dates a ghost named Louis Thanksgiving, and Kiwi, Ava’s older brother, turns traitor and leaves the island for World of Darkness, sending most of his pay to the Bigtrees he’s left behind.
Russell’s worldview— and her prose—is wry and complicated. Poised on the knife-blade between innocence and experience, Ava attempts to save the Bigtrees, and her coming of age has some of the natural savagery of her surroundings, as well as much of its grace. Swamplandia! is a flawed novel, complete with unexplained narrative glitches and some pretty spectacular concluding coincidences, but meeting Ava just may be worth the price of admission.
Angela Fasick is the Director of Studies and Upper School English teacher, Laurel School.
STUDENT REVIEW | Emma Freer
In the novel Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell, reality intersects with fantasy. Even though the characters are very human and live in the very real state of Florida, what happens to Ava Bigtree—and her big, messy tribe of a family—seems unlikely in the real world.
An alligator theme park could exist and be called Swamplandia! It could be a family business, operated by a crazy, dysfunctional family like the Bigtrees. In fact, it was Bigtrees themselves that drew me into the story and kept me interested.
Despite some confusing elements—relationships with the supernatural and alligator-related jargon—the characters are engaging and believable. I found myself identifying with the three Bigtree children and their age-appropriate struggles: Kiwi, the oldest, wants to recreate himself as a learned mainlander instead of the island’s nerd; Ossie, the middle child, is caught up in a phase, obsessing over the occult as she dreams about boys; and Ava, the youngest, is pure invincibility, wanting to fix everyone else’s problems.
These characters kept me engaged in the book. The outlandish twists in the story (children left to fend for themselves on an island, treks to the underworld and more) distracted from the very compelling, seemingly real characters. Russell consistently switches characters throughout the book, which leaves the reader constantly on her toes waiting to see what will happen next.
Nonetheless, Russell keeps at least one foot of her fantastical world in reality. The children visit their grandfather in a retirement home, a wholly ordinary act that I have experienced many times with my own siblings. Also, the Bigtrees are emotionally reeling from the loss of their matriarch; and they are financially struggling because of a failing family business.
Russell strikes an interesting balance between fantasy and reality. Her book is fictional not only in the sense that it never truly happened but also in that it never really could. All the same, the possibility of finding solutions to real world problems in a make-believe world is very satisfying, even if it could only happen in Swamplandia!
Emma Freer graduated from Laurel School and will be blogging for Your Teen about her freshman year at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.