So much buzz and anticipation preceded this week’s publication of Karen Russell’s first novel that I was nearly afraid to read it for fear of disappointment. Russell won the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award in 2009, was included among The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 last summer, and was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists in 2007.
I read her short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, a few years ago, and while I could appreciate its excellence, it did not move me. With the notable exception of the title story, which I adore and have recommended over and over again.
Suffice it to say, Swamplandia! is dazzling (especially the first third) and affecting (especially the last third). I rooted for both Ava and Kiwi, the younger sister and older brother who travel to hell and back (literally, in a fashion). And the sentences! The kind that you want to read out loud to the person sitting next to you, that compel you to highlight or circle or otherwise mark up the pages.
Why is this a book that will appeal to teens? First, the obvious. The main characters are 13, 16 and 17. But it’s more than that. This book has energy and vitality. It is also really, really funny. First, there’s the whole concept of Swamplandia! itself. An alligator-wrestling theme park!? One of the items available for purchase in the gift shop is “a foam alligator hat designed to look like it was eating your head.” It’s also not for the squeamish, i.e. Live Chicken Thursdays.
Then there’s Swamplandia!’s mainland competition: the World of Darkness, a family-oriented hell-themed amusement park. Cleverness abounds, from the carpeted entryway (the “Tongue of the Leviathan”), to the cafeteria offerings (“Hellspawn Hoagie” or “Faustian Bargain Fish Tacos”), to the Lake of Fire, an underground pool where the water is dyed red to simulate swimming in blood. Funny, disgusting and disorienting.
The Bigtree children grow up isolated on an island, neglectfully home-schooled, and their naiveté can be hilariously funny. It also places them directly in harm’s way. There are genuinely frightening moments here, and awful things happen. Swamplandia! is not perfect, the energy dips in the middle, but it is exciting, surprising and original.
This is a book for the intrepid reader, for mature teens who love words, who might glimpse the echoes of classic journey novels, who might recognize the “ferocious self-hatred” of betraying family even in the interests of self-preservation. I can’t wait to booktalk it and gauge the response.
Adult/High School–Russell’s inventive, audacious, and poignant first novel lives up to the promise of her acclaimed short story collection, Saint Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (Knopf, 2006). Ava is 12 when her mother dies of cancer. Hilola Bigtree was the main attraction in the family’s alligator-wrestling-themed park and cafe, Swamplandia!, built deep within the swamps of an island off southwest Florida. Ten months after her death, Swamplandia! is forced to close its doors, and the family falls apart. Seventeen-year-old Kiwi, long bitter about their isolation from the mainland, runs away to work for the competition: the World of Darkness (the theme is Hell). Their father, Chief Bigtree, goes on one of his periodic trips, leaving only a telephone number. Osceola, Ava’s 16-year-old sister, begins to date ghosts. She falls in love with young Louis Thanksgiving, who tragically lost his life in a dredging accident during the Depression, and elopes. Ava is left alone until the Bird Man arrives and promises to take her to the Underworld to find Ossie. Secretly, Ava hopes they might also find her mother. All of the children proceed on their own perilous odysseys. Russell is a master of exhilaratingly clever sentences and wildly fecund descriptions of swamp flora and fauna, but all of this would fall flat without the poignancy and realism she lends to her eccentric teenaged characters. They are haunted by their mother, by their unique upbringing, and their yearning, confusion, self-doubt, naiveté, and desperate love and need for each other ring true. It is impossible not to hope against hope that they will not only survive, but reunite as a family.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City