Welcome to December’s installment of the BBRBF Book Club! If you want to see past posts, click through here. This month, we read Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. Be sure to keep an eye on Sara, Kathleen, Noelle, and Helene for their reviews. And as always, before we dive in: the synopsis(via the back of the book).
“Thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree has lived her entire life at Swamplandia!, her family’s island home and gator-wrestling theme park in the Florida Everglades. But when illness fells Ava’s mother, the park’s indomitable headliner, the family is plunged into chaos; her father withdraws, her sister falls in love with a spooky character know as the Dredgeman, and her brilliant big brother, Kiwi, defects to a rival park called The World of Darkness. As Ava sets out on a mission through the magical swamps to save them all, we are drawn into a lush and bravely imagined debut that takes us to the shimmering edge of reality.”
Swamplandia! begins as a book full of quirky characters with a promising storyline.
After Hilola Bigtree, the headliner for a gator-wrestling park, dies of cancer (a banal death, Ava thinks, for such a big persona), her family spirals into a sad kind of chaos. Her husband Samuel — referred to as “The Chief” — cannot pull himself together to care for his three children and his aging father, the latter of whom sinks into dementia and is transferred to home care. The park loses its tourists just as it lost its main attraction, and is on the verge of bankruptcy.
Kiwi Bigtree, the oldest and only son, leaves his two sisters to work at a rival theme park titled The World of Darkness so that he might earn enough money to help save his beloved home. With him, he takes the last of his father’s cash, right down to the pennies. So The Chief, hoping to save the one life he knows, leaves his two daughters at Swamplandia to care for themselves so he can act on a series of plans that will save the theme park. In his wake, the elder of the two daughters, Osceola, begins to have stronger and stronger visions of ghosts that inhabit her and fall in love with her. Ava, the younger at the burgeoning age of 13, watches as her sister falls deeper and deeper into her visions. Ava is unsure whether Ossie’s visions are real or whether the ghosts are fallacy.
Eventually, Ossie finds a ghost who becomes so real to her that she elopes with him. She plans to marry him and go to The Underworld, where they will… live happily ever after in death? This part of her plans are not revealed nor does anyone really question what exactly will go on after Ossie succeeds in her elopement with Louis, the ghost from the 1930’s who died dredging the swamps around the theme park.
She tells his story to Ava before leaving, and it is so clear and factual that Ava cannot tell whether her sister is suffering delusions, or whether what her sister experiences is real. Eventually, left alone, Ava decides to go after her sister with the assistance of a stranger who calls himself the Bird Man, and whom arrives at a perfectly opportune time to accompany Ava on her journey to The Underworld.
This is the point of the story where the book began to lose me a little bit.
How does this mysterious Bird Man show up at the perfect time to help a pubescent girl run after her sister who has run away to marry a ghost in the underworld? Why does Ava trust him so immediately; this girl who has kept secrets from her own family and doesn’t trust them with the knowledge of her beautiful little red pet alligator?
I desperately wanted the Bird Man to be the man of magic that, in her young and impressionable mind, Ava believes him to be. He never gives up his story nor his real name, and possesses a kind of charismatic aura that holds power over Ava. He is her guide to finding her sister and, though weakly hoped for, her mother in The Underworld. He knows how to navigate the maze of swamplands, to find The Eye that will usher them into the shallows of Hell, to tell the difference between the living and the dead once they’ve arrived.
Everything in me wanted the author to go there. To confirm that Ossie really communed with ghosts, to paint the larger picture around this mysterious Bird Man who knew the way to The Underworld, to open up a shimmering darkness of magic in this quirky yet mundane life of Ava Bigtree.
But, disappointingly, she did not come through.
In the end, Osceola was just a sixteen year old whose mind was not all there. In the end, Kiwi Bigtree could not save the swamp with his traitorous move of working at The World of Darkness. In the end, the Chief’s big plan to save Swamplandia! ended up being nothing better than working at a seedy casino as a beauty pageant host for women past their prime. And in the end, the Bird Man was nothing more than a predator who had somehow caught wind of the fact that a young and trusting girl was alone in the world, and pounced at the right time to squander her away in the swamps and take advantage of her youth and innocence for his own twisted pleasure.
There was no Underworld, no Ghost Elopement, no Triumphant Saving Of The Park. Just a little girl raped in the swamps and fighting through the elements to save herself after a failed mission to save her delusional sister.
And sure, in the end the family somehow finds themselves back together and realizing they cannot do anything without each other, but I was disappointed.
Because I wanted something to redeem this book. It has the kind of quirky narration that must be capitalized; the Quirky Characters that are all unique and special snowflakes; the Quirky Storyline that throws everything improbable into itself coupled with the Quirky Language that is adopted by so many tales of young impressionables coming into their own awareness of how the world works. There’s a dirty grit in Kiwi’s side of the story, as he works amongst people who only care about getting high and getting drunk and getting laid. Who have affairs, who take advantage of those below them, who don’t give a crap about humans on any level other than “what can this person do for me?”
And, to be frank, I dislike this type of book immensely. It is so devoid of any hope or happiness that even its eloquence and Quirkiness cannot dredge it up from that feeling of sadness in the end.
When I finished, I just felt sad.
It’s a story about people taking advantage of people. Ava is taken advantage of by the Bird Man; Ossie is taken advantage of by ghosts; Kiwi is taken advantage of by the rival park; the Chief is taken advantage of by his own child and the ways of the world. At one point, Kiwi has a run-in with his dementia-stricken grandfather and they nearly kill each other.
While I do believe the underlying message of the book is that family needs to stick together, as evidenced by the last chapter, it was overall a book full of disappointments for the cast of characters, all of whom go through their various trials to learn that the world is not a fairytale but a big bad place full of untrustworthy people (and ghosts), and disappointment for me as a reader because none of the promises of and hopes for the plot came through.
It was the type of book that I always hope will have a big finish. Those of you who do not enjoy fairytales and who like to read books that are riddled with the grime of lowlife reality might enjoy this book for its hyper-reality in the dirt of Loomis and the sweat of the swamps. It was well written in that respect, and I appreciated the language of the author even in her over-saturation of quirk.
But it wasn’t a book for me. I prefer stories with a touch of magic in them, a sense of hope in the end, or an all-out fairytale ending.
Did you read Swamplandia!? What did you think?
As for my outfit, I though this skirt that looked like a jungle would be apt. In its leaves are hidden an exotic cat, and it reminds me of the gators that Ava sees hidden everywhere in her beloved swamps. I wanted my outfit to have a little bit of exotic wildness too it, just like Swamplandia!’s promise of exotic shows with Hilola’s brave headliner acts. And, of course, green, for the gators and for the holiday season.
I hope you enjoyed this book review (and if you didn’t, I apologize! I didn’t much enjoy writing it as I had higher hopes for this novel!) and don’t forget to visit my fellow bloggers for their reviews. Join us next month as we read Stardust by Niel Gaiman (as chosen by me! I’m very excited for this one!)
Skirt, top, belt, and fur: all vintage and thrifted | brooch, gift/vintage | boots, Amazon | hairpiece, gift | earrings, vintage/gift