Thursday, December 1, 2011


Russell, Karen. Swamplandia! NY: Vintage, 2011.

R. Stuhr

I had the good fortune to hear Karen Russell speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia on a cold, rainy Tuesday night in November. She was funny and self-deprecating and, although I've been saving as many pennies as I can as of late, I couldn't resist buying not only Swamplandia!, but her first collection of short stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (have not read this one yet). She chose to read an interesting segment of Swamplandia!--one that was central to the novel but was in many ways a diversion. Reading it out of context gave the uninformed little clue as to what the novel was about, and it startled me when I got to that section in my own reading of the novel. But having said that, the novel is much more serious in theme and tone than I would have expected from Ms. Russell's own demonstrated sense of humor. But this is just an observation and in no way a criticism. I was not disappointed by the book even though my taste tends to veer away from the  gothic sagas of eccentric families raising their children without any of the usual mores and codes. I think of, for instance, Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux. And yet, Russell does not forgive or absolve the parents for their neglect and ultimate abandonment of the children. What becomes of them, what they suffer, is serious and life changing. At the same time, we can recognize the desperation and helplessness and good if mistaken intentions of the parents. In fact, we never really learn the whole story or discover the paths that brought the parents together. How did the mother feel about her life? What did she give up and did she have regrets? What were her choices?

Swamplandia! has a dual narration. Segments are narrated in the first person by Ava, the youngest child, and other segments are in the third person. It was always a little jolting to shift from "he" to "I." Early in the novel, the family's tenuous existence catapults toward disaster after the untimely death of the mother. Kiwi, the oldest son, eventually leaves their island and Alligator park (the island and park are both Swamplandia) in the Florida Everglades to try to earn money to save the family from bankruptcy. The middle child, Ossie, a teenage daughter begins communicating with the dead, and Ava, barely in her teens, tries to fill the gap left by her mother. When the father leaves for a few weeks to take care of business (work a second job on the mainland), Ossie drifts off to seek a lover among the dead and Avis to find her sister with the swamp's "bird man." This is the most gripping and poignant part of the novel. The reader is no better informed as to the qualities of the bird man, whether or not he can be trusted and relied upon, than Ava is as she counts on him to help her find her sister and needs him in her state of complete abandonment by all members of her family. As they go deeper into the swamp in search of Ossie the landscape and Ava's situation become more terrifying.

In the meantime Kiwi has gone to the rival amusement park, The World of Darkness, and struggles in the world of minimum wage to earn something to send back to his family.

To say more would be to give too much away. Suffice it to say that Russell is an outstanding story teller, who keeps you turning pages, but gives your mind something to work with and ponder as you read. Her characters have depth and the lines and details of the plot are revealed through their interpretation of events.

Swamplandia! is available as a printed book to be checked out and also as an electronic book to be downloaded from the Free Library of Philadelphia.

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