There’s a strong chance that any attempt on my family’s part to co-operate some sort of theme park would end in both tears and shouted insults regarding business acumen (also probably bankruptcy). You see, we Bindrims are not meant to work in concert, and it’s really in everyone’s best interest that we reserve our interactions for lesser affairs, like the Thanksgiving table. Still, whenever I stumble onto a movie or book predicated on the notion of a family-run entertainment venue (in a fit of boredom, I even watched Dolphin Tale a few weeks ago) I can’t help but envy the unique camaraderie that comes with providing a bit of wacky family-run family fun.
Which brings me to Swamplandia! A gator-wrestling theme park in the Florida Everglades, Swamplandia! is owned and operated by the Bigtree family, whose implied tribal background is just that: implied. In reality, the Bigtrees are made up of dad (the Chief), mother Hilola, daughter Osceola, son Kiwi and daughter Ava, the last of whom is our narrator. The family-run operation — accessible only by boat — is chugging along smoothly until the relatively sudden death of Hilola, who in addition to being the maternal unit is also Swamplandia’s star attraction: Every night she dives headfirst into a pit of alligators in what’s referred to as “Swimming with the Seths” (all of the alligators are named, and referred to as, Seth). After Hilola’s death, her surviving family members are distraught, and Swamplandia struggles to retain its fan base absent a main attraction.
Then things start to get weird. Strapped for cash and withdrawn from his family, Chief Bigtree departs for the mainland to try and raise funds for his Swamplandia recovery plan. Left to their own devices, the kids splinter: Kiwi defects to World of Darkness, a rival theme park; Osceola begins communicating with (and dating) long-dead spirits in the Florida swamps; and Ava, stressing the gradual disintegration of her family, departs on her own mission to try and bring them back together.
On its face, Swamplandia reminded me a great deal of Geek Love, Katherine Dunn’s 2002 novel about a family whose genetically engineered mutations are the basis for their carnival show. Outside of the obvious plot parallels, both books are odd and almost supernatural; the line between fantasy and reality feels tenuous at best. And while I’m usually not keen on that kind of ambiguity (the entire magical realism genre is lost on me) in both Geek Love and Swamplandia it kinda works – once you get past trying to decipher minor details like “But so is Osceola really in love with the ghost of a long-dead maritime worker?” Both books also have a dark side, and potential readers would be remiss to think Swamplandia is all gator tricks and family drama: the novel delves into some pretty serious consequences of isolation, poverty and what I would definitely categorize as parental negligence.
But my favorite moments in Swamplandia had little to do with the book’s overall plot (though the logistics of alligator wrestling are fahreals fascinating) but rather with Russell’s attention to linguistic detail. From the first-page description of Hilola Bigtree’s nightly alligator performance, Russell paints a picture so complete that it feels real, though I personally have never been to any alligator theme parks (YET). The novel is perhaps overly rife with similes—the cheap trick of descriptive language—but it’s more than made up for other genius moments, like Kiwi eating lunch among the teeth of a humongous World of Darkness whale attraction, or Ava describing a desk as so weak that “I didn’t even like to rest on my eyes on it.”
Swamplandia is, more than anything, unpredictable and hugely unique (all Geek Love similarities aside). I finished reading it last week over steaming cups of coffee while bundled up on the balcony of an oceanside hotel — and yet never did I feel all that far from the Florida Everglades, or the sticky humidity of swamp life. I’m not sure what lessons I’m meant to take away from the book (don’t let your siblings talk to dead people? Swamp theme parks are not a growth industry?) except that sometimes a little bit of fantasy goes a long way.
AUTHOR: Karen Russell
PAGES: 397 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Vampires in the Lemon Grove
SORTA LIKE: Geek Love meets Heart of Darkness
FIRST LINE: “Our mother performed in starlight.”