Wednesday, May 1, 2013


Karen Russell

Vintage UK, 2012

Theme park Swamplandia! was at the peak of success, until Hilola Bigtree, the main attraction of the park, had died. The Bigtree family every evening made a show for tourists who on the ferry arrive to the marshy fringes of Florida to look at Hilola, female wrestler with alligators in the swamp pit. The father, nicknamed Chief Bigtree, with his wife was in charge of an amusement park, and their three children, the eldest 17-year-old Kiwi, 16-year-old Osceola and the youngest, the narrator of story,13-year-old Ava, helped their parents. Swamplania! offered cheap beer and many other attractions, but mostly families came from the mainland to look at Hilola, which, in her words, once won the tournament among female alligators wrestlers. But Hilola, not yet forty, got cancer, chemotherapy didn’t not help, and Hilola died during one of her shows, had not emerged from the swamp pit.

In the absence of the main star Swamplandia! can offer visitors nothing outstanding, and gradually the flow of spectators dried up until even cheap beer lovers stoped coming.

«Where had all the families gone? The families were gone. All at once, it felt like. Families had been our keystone species of tourists on Swamplandia! and now they were rarer than panthers. Red-eyed men with no kids in tow started showing up at the Saturday shows. Solitaries. Sometimes they debarked the ferry with perfumed breath, already drunk. Sometimes they motored over from the Flamingo Marina in Loomis County on their own junker boats, and always they seemed far more interested in the cheap beer and the woodsmoke black racks of the fried frog legs than our tramway tours or our alligator wrestling—somehow Swamplandia! seemed to have earned a truck-stop reputation as a good place to “get obliterated” on a weekend night. One guy I found urinating on the side of our gift shop—the actual wall, even though the public bathrooms with the vault toilets were just a five-minute walk down the trail! I hated them. When we had a crowd of these red-eyes, the Chief would not let me wrestle and performed the whole show himself. The Chief liked most every tourist with a wallet but he cooled on these guys. He blamed the World of Darkness for them, too.»

Naturally, the park is immersed in debt, though, in general, no one especially shakes Chief Bigtree down.

Young writer Karen Russell could take the action of her debut novel not in the jungle swamps of Florida, but in the jungles of some other world, and it would have been a fantasy at the intersection with realism. But Russell has remained true to realism, with a touch of fantasy. The reversal of the sum is not changing, and Swamplandia! turns out an exciting book, whatever genre it is.

In the first half of the novel Russell builds and develops the mythology of the world of Swamplandia!. Bit by bit the world is becoming wild and original. Everything plays on the entourage, from names and nicknames to describings of the correct feeding of alligators and proper clamping their mouths. World of Swamplandia! is in itself mysterious and alluring, and half of its charm is that the story (most of it) tells by the child, in fact - the child, which in exception of her family and the park has not seen next to nothing about life outside of the park and doesn’t understand the surrounding world, one that is outside of the park and wetlands. For the same reason, the comic effect is achieved when we read about the life of Kiwi Bigtree on the mainland. He is quick-witted young man, but sometimes he does not understand the elementary things. In the end, we see that civilization has an effect on everyone and in a short time: Kiwi closer to the finale already goes to bars and knows how to swear.

Having built up the mythology, Karen Russell can only regulate the world, and the story tells itself. Already mythology starts to pays off the writer. And if everything goes well with Kiwi, not so well for Ava. However, you look closely at the heroes, as the plot begins to accelerate to the finale. Perhaps the only fragment of the novel, which is not up to novel’s high standards, is a description of travel of Ava and Bird Man to a fictional hell (though it can be called the real one). Prose loses some elasticity, and it becomes tougher to burst through the text, as difficult as for Ava and her companion burst through the swamps and jungles.

From the book’s end you can make a useful thought: good is not where you was born, good is where you feel good. Russell’s Swamplandia! is a great, "swamp" reading, both literally and figuratively: sucks you in and you can’t help it.

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