Swamplandia! ~ Karen Russell

Let me say right off that I grew up in South Florida, and adventures into the Everglades are something I’m familiar with. The Everglades is ingrained into the culture of South Florida – such that a few points of interest were regular “field trip” stops, as elementary school kids. Besides the obligatory stop at The Serpentarium to see water moccasins “milked” for their venom, we would always stop to see a bit of “alligator Wrestling”. “Seminoles’  were ostensibly the performers, along with the pre-historic beasts. So you see, this book particularly interested me, even though it’s really far removed from my experiences.

Karen Russell’s novel is a coming of age story – not only for the Bigtree children: Ossie (Osceola), Kiwi and especially Ava – but in part a coming of age story about the Everglades itself and the eco-system.

Russell’s novel starts with “The Beginning of the End” when the lifeblood and chief performer of the family (the money provider) dies: the kids mother, Hilola Bigtree. This is devastating to the whole family as they suddenly realize that is was her that held the family together. Money woes ensue. The park is deeply in debt. A newer, more modern theme park opens nearby and suddenly there are days when no one shows up anymore. With the star attraction, and the newer, more hyped park, Swamplandia doesn’t stand a chance. Chief Bigtree (the father) drifts off on a ‘mission’, Kiwi throws his lot in with the competition in order to try and make some money. Ossie drifts off into madness and the occult, engaging herself to a ghost. Ava, who was the understudy to her mother, suddenly has adulthood thrust upon her.

Ava begins a mission to find her sister who has disappeared into the swamp. Aiding her in her search is The Birdman. A mystical, mysterious stranger. Ava’s belief in him swings from trust to skepticism to fear and back. The journey by skiff through the ‘glades in search of “the underworld” where Ava hopes to rescue her sister from the land of the dead, is a steadily intensifying journey that will have you suddenly turning the pages to see “what happens next”. It’s by turns a tender sketch of a young girl on the verge of growing up and terrifying portrait of the perils of adulthood. You hardly know whether to fell terrified for Ava or proud of her at the end.

There are many pleasures here that catch our eye, hold our attention:

The library boat: about a quarter of a mile away, the boat “held a cargo of books”, that had become sort of a lending library by honor system, people took books, people left others, so the ‘library’ was always changing.

In the thirties and forties, Harrel M. Crow, a fisherman and a bibliophile, had piloted the schooner around our part of the swamp delivering books to the scattered islanders. Then Harrel M. Crow died and I guess that was it for the door-to-door service. But his library boar, miraculously, had survived on the rocky island, unscavenged and undestroyed by hurricanes.

The library boat was where Kiwi got his education, and where Ossie fell into “spiritualism”. She believed in ghosts.

The Dredge: a symbol for man’s tampering with nature. Man? Let’s be specific: The Army Corps of Engineers. Look at a map of Florida and that big blue body of water smack dab in the middle of the state is the Lake. Where I spent my summer camps as a Young Christian Man (Associated). Hey, it was cheap. The water was so clear in those days that I can still remember seeing a water moccasin from my canoe wriggling underneath me. The waters of Okeechobee happen to be the headwaters of the Everglades. Mess with the lake you mess with the ‘glades.

Water once flowed out of Lake Okeechobee without interruption, or interference from men. Aspiring farmers wanted to challenge her blue hegemony. All that rich peat beneath the lakes was going to waste! Melaleuca quinquenervia was an exotic invasive, an Australian tree imported to suck the Florida swamp dry….The Army Corps of Engineers had planted thousands of melaleuca trees in the 1940’s as part of their Drainage Project, back when the government thought it was possible to turn our tree islands into a pleated yellowland of crops…The dikes and levees that the Army Corps had recommended for flood control had turned the last virgin mahogany stands into dustbowls; in other places, wildfire burned the peat beds down to witchy fingers of lime.

Now the melaleucas had formed an “impermeable monoculture.” That meant a forest with just one kind of tree in it…You could sum up the response of the Army Corps of Engineers and the swamp developers in one word…”Oops!”…The Army Corps of Engineers changed its objective from draining the “wasteland” of the swamp islands to saving them…The Bigtree men swung axes into them, bled them, flooding the world with the smell of camphor. We kept cutting them down, and the earth kept raising them. It was a haywire fertility, like a body making cancer.

The voice of Ava is one of the best I’ve read in a long while. Oh, back to Emma Donoghue’s Room, I suppose. She’s only thirteen, but growing up fast. The charm is that we are constantly reminded that she is just thirteen after all. To Ava, her mother’s cancer, her malignancy, is an evil spell that has been cast upon her by an evil witch: Malig Nancy. You’ll fall under Russell’s spell as well and think upon it for sometime afterwards.


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