First the confession: I think if Karen Russell wrote a manual on how to put a bicycle together, I’d pretend not to understand the assembly process, so that I could read it over and over. Her language is so fresh, original and creative, I just want it to last.
I know that starling language alone doesn’t make a book interesting for many students (or many adults for that matter). But we are all lucky in that Russell’s wild imagination extends to the plot of her story as well as to the language. This is one of the most fascinating and weird novels I’ve read.
Much of the narrative is told by Ava although her brother, Kiwi, leaves home and then his story is told in alternating chapters. Ava, Kiwi, and their sister Osceola Bigtree are the children of a couple who own a tourist attraction called Swamplandia! on an island off Florida. They raise and wrestle alligators (which they call Seths). When the mother, Hilola Bigtree, dies at thirty-six from ovarian cancer, the family loses its star and Swamplandia! loses most of its business. The attraction’s doom appears to be sealed when a macabre version of a Disney-style attraction opens on the mainland—The World of Darkness.
Family members try to save their business with Kiwi off to the World of Darkness to work; Ava raising a red alligator, hoping that its coloring will fascinate new tourists; and the Bigtree dad going off to seek backers for his Darwinism feature idea. But with their father gone, Osceola’s (Ossie’s) obsession with ghosts appears to become a possession. She has a spectral boyfriend who seems to inhabit her body. When she disappears, Ava, alone on the island, must face the Underworld and its inhabitants to save her.
It’s hard to explain why this book is so fascinating because it doesn’t fit the typical teen supernatural genre at all (or maybe that’s why it is fascinating). It’s hard to know when ghosts are real; when adults are friends rather than predators; when the past is inhabiting the present; who is in danger and who is safe. Add to this that throughout the story, there is much irony and humor derived from the siblings’ antics, from their utter unfamiliarity with the mainland and behaviors that are common in ordinary lives.
Swamplandia! is another book you could use to impress your teachers by comparing it to the classic works you are reading in school. The most obvious comparison would be to Heart of Darkness, but I saw some of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in the way that the characters were losing everything and even a bit from a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne (“Young Goodman Brown”) when a hair ribbon from a lost girl floats out of the sky and is caught by the seeker.
I’d recommend this weird, wild story broadly, but if you are a teen who likes to write creatively and seeks good examples, Swamplandia! is a must.