By Karen Russell
Knopf, 316 pages, $24.95
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
The talent Karen Russell paraded in her remarkable short story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves has turned into mastery in her debut novel, Swamplandia!
St. Lucy’s, published in 2006, was a stunning unveiling attesting to Russell’s direct link to the subconscious, symbolized in Florida’s fecund, mutable Everglades, the Miami native’s mystical and spiritual core.
The Everglades also star in Swamplandia!, drawing the reader through fantastic natural landscapes that Russell, now 29, contrasts with Loomis County, the super-urban, super-tacky mainland spot where much of the action takes place.
The heroine of Swamplandia! is Ava Bigtree, a 13-year-old trying to fill her dead mother’s shoes as alligator wrestler and marquee attraction in Swamplandia! — the family’s amusement park. Her older sister, Osceola, runs away with Louis Thanksgiving, a ghost Ossie meets on a dredge boat wandered from the 1930s Workers Progress Administration into the swamp where the Bigtrees live. “Big Chief” Bigtree, the dad, has gone to Loomis County to earn money to salvage Swamplandia!, struggling badly in the wake of Hilola Bigtree’s demise. Kiwi, Ava’s older brother, has left for Loomis County, too, to work at World of Darkness, Swamplandia’s snazzier, numbingly high-tech competitor.
Swamplandia! is a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age novel about kids in their teens. It’s also about moral choices, about siding with a precious, challenging wilderness that must be preserved for ecological balance or an urban environment where there’s money to be made. Russell shares such concerns with fellow Florida novelist Carl Hiaasen, best known for works such as Striptease and Native Son.
But where Hiaasen uses satire and humor to lambaste environmental predators, Russell deploys surrealism in unique prose that skirts poetry. The passages involving the Bigtree girls are steeped in nature and routinely ravishing; the sections dealing with the World of Darkness stick like gum to the soles of a shoe, reflecting the tawdriness of an overwrought theme park.
Even the minor players are memorable, including the “red Seth,” a fiery baby alligator Ava considers her talisman, and Bird Man, an Ichabod Crane-like character who badly damages Ava even as he grows her up. The research is solid, too. The reader learns of the Melaleuca, “an Australian tree imported to suck the Florida swamp dry,” and that the Seminole Wars “lasted longer than any other U.S. conflict,” among other context-setters. But the charm is Russell’s writing.
Ava survives a harrowing trip through the swamp in which she narrowly escapes death by alligator:
“The whole time I was thinking about the buoyancy that saved me,” she reflects. “I know that I am a pretty biased interpreter of the events that led to my escape, but I believe I met my mother there, in the final instant. Not her ghost but some vaster portion of her, her self boundlessly recharged beneath the water. Her courage. In the cave I think she must have lent me some of it, because the strength I felt then was as huge as the sun. The yellow inside you that makes you want to live.”
Carlo Wolff is a Cleveland-based free-lance writer.