FLORIDA IS A PLACE of dualities: swift, sprawling development and vast, swampy wilderness. Cosmopolitan, multicultural cities and isolated rural communities. Pristine, soft beaches and harsh, uninhabitable jungles. One finds in these stark dualities the sort of surreal, profound tensions that make for unforgettable epic stories. Karen Russell’s remarkable, lush debut novel, Swamplandia!, is this kind of epic, lushly imagined and gorgeous, with a thrilling plotline at its core and a socially aware but never ham-handed message in its fist.
Much of Swamplandia! comes through the voice of twelve-year-old Ava Bigtree, who becomes the emotional core of the Bigtree family after the death of her mother, a famed alligator wrestler and star of the family-owned tourist attraction, Swamplandia! Despite the steadfast denials of Ava’s father, the fiercely optimistic Chief Bigtree, the island-based theme park is in trouble, along with the rest of Old Florida — mermaid shows in Weeki Wachee, roadside motels on Highway 19, and family-run food shacks along the beach. Swamplandia! and the Bigtree family are part of a dying generation of kitsch and quaintness swallowed up in the vast, sanitized maw of Disneyland, shopping malls, and endless subdivisions.
Mired in debt, the Bigtrees head to the mainland, one by one, with plans to save their beloved business and, eventually, to save each other. Ava’s own odyssey, a search for her sister, Ossie, who has run off to marry a ghost, is full of suspenseful menace that starts out whimsically but quickly veers into darker waters. The other chapters of Swamplandia! belong to Ava’s older brother, Kiwi, the most intriguing and credible character in the book, whose excruciatingly awkward but inspiring attempt to earn money for the family takes him to a demeaning, surreal job at nearby mega-attraction (and nail in Swamplandia’s coffin) World of Darkness.
Russell’s ability to spin a yarn is undeniable, but readers will also marvel at the sad, knowing wisdom in these pages, particularly because they come from an author who is still a few years shy of thirty. Russell understands that all beloved places are magical and leaving a place one loves is harrowing. The upheaval — economic, environmental, spiritual, social — taking place in some of our nation’s most isolated (and beautiful) communities has no easy remedy. The trick for the writer concerned with such issues is to convey that upheaval with a blend of compassionate honesty, magic, and detailed beauty, mindful of what is being lost and respectful of the people who are losing it.
Russell does all of these things with brilliance and verve, but she also manages to do what so many gorgeous, place-centric writers seem to forget. She tells an amusing, captivating story, and in doing so offers up one of the most promising debut novels to come along in years.