Why an Exquisite Southern Gothic Tale Haunts Me Still

Review of Swamplandia by Karen Russell

Note: This review contains spoilers

Swamplandia book cover

After receiving many recommendations for Swamplandia, I finally set out to decide for myself whether I was a fan of Karen Russell, who was recently awarded a 2013 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.”  I was intrigued by the title and the premise of the novel: Among the mystical no-mans land of the Florida Everglades lies Swamplandia, an alligator-wrestling theme park run by the Bigtree “tribe.”  Admirers of the Seminole culture and all things fantastical, the (white) Bigtrees live amongst the Seths (gators), diving into pits of the toothy reptiles in front of a roaring crowd for show. Thirteen-year-old Ava, our main character, wants desperately to follow in the footsteps of her mother, Hilola Bigtree, the fierce, legendary alligator wrestler responsible for Swamplandia’s success.

Within the first few chapters of the novel the same spectacular, death-defying Hilola succumbs to terminal cancer, leaving Ava and her two siblings, Kiwi and Ossie, motherless. This loss is the complex and ironic tragedy that drives the book. We watch Ava struggle with the both the loss of her mother and the disintegration of Hilola’s legend. Her mother’s absence leaves a vacuum, threatening to destroy the collapsing Bigtree clan as Swamplandia loses its tourists to the mainland theme park, The World of Darkness, and falls into crippling debt. Chief Bigtree, their father, leaves to find investors. Ava’s brother Kiwi runs away to the mainland to support the family financially. Ava and Ossie, two young girls alone in the swamp, sleep in the same room but live in worlds apart, each searching for their lost mother in their own way.

Swamps make for eerie, mystical settings. Surrealist realities seem perfectly natural in the hazy, boggy scenes of reptilian homes. Perhaps this is why I was so eager to cast Swamplandia as a magical realist novel — a bildungsroman that blended death and loss with a sense of optimism found in the fantastical. So, when Ava’s older sister Ossie adopts The Spiritualist (a sort of witchy manual) as her personal bible and informs the family she’s been dating around the underworld, I smiled. Was she talking to the ghost of their mother too? Ava kept asking for us. Could she actually talk to these ghosts, or were they manifestations of a young mind fragmented by the despair of losing a mother? Ava believed none, either, or both, depending on the chapter you were reading.

In Chief Bigtree and Kiwi’s absence, Ossie’s constructed reality propels her to run away and marry her ghost lover in the Underworld – a mythical rend in the deep bayou that allows passage into darker, spiritual spaces. In a dreamlike quest with an appropriately uncanny “guide,” a wandering loner nicknamed “The Birdman,” Ava pursues Ossie to the Underworld. Yet when she gets to the supposed destination, we’re woken up abruptly from a fantastical reverie by the violent reality of Ava’s rape scene with the Birdman. With a sudden refocusing of scene, Russell awakens Ava to a reality where far-fetched adventures are escapist fantasies and ghosts are companions produced by a fragile, lonely mind.

It was at this point in the novel, that I felt like Karen Russell had ripped my heart out of my chest, Last of the Mohicans style. This horrible event, mounted on top of Ava’s grief, was a plot point I had expected 100 pages earlier, when Ava met the Birdman and invited him to stay with her at the unguarded Bigtree house. But when the inevitable didn’t happen, I warmed with the realization that Russell had decided to take the book in a less expected direction and not rely on such a painful and archetypal trauma to culminate Ava’s loss of innocence.

Rape forces the loss of innocence in a very tangible, and time specific way.  By this I don’t mean to imply that rape scenes are never complex, or appropriate, or important in a story – only that they are necessarily painful incidences that demand a reader’s emotional reaction. I find that they can sometimes obstruct subtlety, oversimplifying a gradual, multifaceted loss of innocence by tying the destruction of naiveté to a single event in time. Watching this event unfold 100 pages after I had first expected it, I felt doubly betrayed. I had some small measure of faith in this quest to save Ossie, just as Ava had. I had allowed myself to believe this journey was built on something more than the violent clash of naïvete with the dark perversions of humankind.

All is not lost though. In a way, Ava reaches her own version of the Underworld and affirms Ossie’s ghostly possessions through an instant of connection with her dead mother. When Ava runs away from the Birdman, she plunges into an alligator nest, just as her own mother had every day at Swamplandia. As Ava swims through the nest, fighting back the Seths on her way to the surface, the presence of her mother fills her with a sense of strength and courage. I can’t resist excerpting here, so that you can appreciate the stunning lyrical power of Russell’s prose:

“The whole time I was thinking about the buoyancy that saved me. I know that I am a pretty biased interpreter of the events that led to my escape, but I believe I met my mother there, in the final instant.  Not her ghost but some vaster portion of her, her self boundlessly recharged beneath the water. Her courage.  In the case I think she must have lent me some of it, because the strength I felt then was as huge as the sun.  The yellow inside you that makes you want to live.  I believe that she was the pulse and bloom that forced me toward the surface. She was the water that eased the clothes from my finger. She was the muscular current that rode me through the water away from the den, and she was the victory howl that at last opened my mouth and filled my lungs…Was that fullness what Ossie had meant when she talked about her possessions? If so then I had been very wrong, I decided.  I was wrong to have laughed at her in our bedroom in the begging, back when we’d said her ghosts weren’t real, or her love” (389-390).

In this moment, Ava finds a sense of connection and calm that soothes the loss she feels, at least temporarily. And whether or not all the facts of Ossie’s possessions add up, Ava acknowledges the truththat search for connectednessthat informed Ossie’s séances.

What still bothered me, though, were the questions about the rape scene that seemed unanswered at the end. Why was the rape scene important?  Why did it have to happen, especially after it didn’t happen so many times? What point did it serve other than as an incident of betrayal and a catalyst for Ava’s loss of innocence? These consequences could have been accomplished by a different turn of events, without relying on such a perverse, but also expected experience as rape. Was it because (forgive me) of the “fullness” that Ava yearned to feel when Ossie talked of how her ghost possessions filled an emptiness inside her? Was it that she needed to feel this possession of her body to understand the difference between this kind of connectedness and the healing fullness that she experienced when she sensed her mother in the alligator nest?

And how could this unrelenting dose of reality come only chapters before Kiwi, with almost magical serendipity, becomes a master pilot on his first try and spots Ava and Ossie in the depths of the swamp? Was this Russell’s attempt at a trucehanding over her handkerchief and telling us to dry our eyes because everything ends well (sort-of)?

No such explanations quite satisfied me. But, perhaps it’s my own fault. Maybe I clung too tightly to my expectation that this story would be bright and fantastical, instead of so deeply rooted in the southern gothic tradition. Afterall, I can’t deny that any story capable of evoking such strong emotional ambivalence has irrefutable power and artistic merit.

Overall, my problems with Russell’s choice of climatic scenes for Ava were overshadowed by the originality Russell’s style and the brilliant, awe-inspiring imagery laced into every scene. Also, I haven’t even touched on Kiwi’s perspective here, but his own story is as believable, endearing, and painful as Ava’s, if not more so. We root for him when he goes off on his own, intent to raise his family out of debt. We’re crushed and delighted in turns. We watch him fail in the real-world, grow-up, be socialized by well-meaning friends, mourn, discover the humanity in his father underneath his “Chieftain” exterior.

Even with my qualms about Ava’s storyline, Swamplandia is an exquisite read. Even as I write this, its scenes drag me back into Seth-infested waters. It haunts me still.

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