Karen Russell's debut, Pulitzer Prize nominated novel takes us deep into the Florida marshes to Swamplandia!, which was once "the Number One Gator-Themed Park and Swamp Cafe in the area." Swamplandia! featured all kinds of attractions, but their headliner was the famous Hilola Bigtree: wife, mother of three, and "world-famous alligator wrestler." But in the prime of Swamplandia!, Hilola died suddenly of an extremely aggressive form of ovarian cancer. Hilola's death is earth-shattering for the rest of the Bigtree family, but 13 year-old Ava Bigtree is determined to follow in her mother's footsteps and master the skill of gator wrestling.
Unfortunately, the rest of the Bigtrees aren't as optimistic about the park's future. Ava's older sister, Osceola, has retreated inside herself and claims to be both possessed by and engaged to a ghost. Their older brother, Kiwi, decides to leave the swamp and find a job on the mainland, and their father, The Chief, is increasingly vague on the subject of their financial situation. But Ava is determined to save the swamp and reunite her family - a job that turns out to be much more perilous than wrestling gators.
Swamplandia! follows a variety of themes, but more than anything, it is a novel about loss and grief. As Ava says in retrospect, "I didn't realize that one tragedy can beget another, and another - bright-eyed disasters flooding out of a death hole like bats out of a cave" (p. 9). But Ava soon finds out that dying isn't the worst part of death. Grief is much worse, especially the kind that tears your family apart, clouds your judgment, and challenges your sanity. Osceola is metaphorically "possessed" by grief. Ava's grief is suppressed by concern for her sister and the future of the park, but bubbling just below the murky surface in her desire to become a gator wrestler. And Kiwi's grief is played out in his descent into The World of Darkness - a rival mainland theme park where he is employed. The Bigtree family at first attempts an attitude of "the show must go on," but how can the show go on if the star is dead and the supporting cast is in mourning?
The novel also explores the dichotomy of memory and reality. Osceola stays as far away from reality as possible, but Ava and Kiwi must slowly face the towering facts. While Hilola Bigtree is a superhero to her family, in reality, Swamplandia! was never much more than an obscure sideshow attraction. In the cold light of maturity, their shimmering childhood is not quite as bright as they remember.
For the quirky, eccentric characters of Swamplandia!, life is full of haunted little surprises. This is especially true for Ava, whose narration serves to chronicle the end of her mother's story just as much as it charts the beginning of her own coming-of-age story. And this idea of a blurry convergence is where Karen Russell really shines as a writer. Whether it's the convergence of life and death, innocence and experience, or fear and courage, Swamplandia! couldn't be a more perfect locale for such a merging. After all, there's no better place for redemption than a southern swampland, right?
This book received tremendous praise after its Pulitzer Prize nomination, and while I agree that Russell's prose is spectacular, it's important to keep in mind that Swamplandia! is a very character-driven novel. Compared to the level of character development, the plot may feel a bit lackluster, and even disjointed at times. But even so, Karen Russell's poetic prose and stylistic subtleties are more than enough to engage readers.