Saturday, April 7, 2012

Swamplandia!

I recently read Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell.  (I love that it has an exclamation mark in the title.)  The Swamplandia! the title refers to is a fictional alligator-based theme park in the swamps of South Florida.  The main characters are three siblings.  Their grandfather was a swindled Northeasterner conned into buying a big plot of Florida swampland to retire to.  When he and his wife discover the swampiness of the land they've bought, they make do, change their names to Sawtooth Bigtree, and open up a alligator-wrestling theme park on the one semi-dry island they own.  Their children and grandchildren grow up on the island, homeschooled and working as performers, janitors, and animal caretakers for Swamplandia! 

The beginning of the book is a lot of fun.  Swamplandia! is a quirky and cheesy tourist trap, but the Bigtree family cherishes it and every creature there (they name every gator they own "Seth," and instead of referring to them as gators call them "the Seths").  Each character has a very distinctive personality, from Sawtooth's son "Chief" to his grandchildren Kiwi, Osceola, and Ava.

However, as the book continues on you realize this is not a cheerful tale of a struggling tourist trap, but a novel on grief.  Chief's wife, the beautiful Hilola Bigtree, recently died of a quick cancer, leaving Kiwi, Osceola, Ava, and the Chief to mourn in their own destructive ways.  Chief refuses to see that Swamplandia! is a lost cause, instead making plans under insurmountable debt to expand the park even though days go by with no customers.  Kiwi escapes the island only to find his upbringing has in no way prepared him for the real world.  Osceola and Ava are abandoned on the island by Kiwi and the Chief, and each suffer their own frightening, tragic, and heart-wrenching ordeals alone that they do not have the maturity to even fully understand.

There were moments towards the end of the book where I literally had to skip over pages because what was happening was so heartbreaking.  But the main narrator, Ava, is too young to really process what she is really going through, and what is happening to her family, which helps to dull the tragedy a little.  If the main character was completely self-aware, the last quarter of the book would be too too sad.

I wish there was more to the ending.  I felt like I needed to know more about what happens to the characters.  But I think that's because the book was so good and the characters felt so real.  I really wanted to see where they end up and what happens to them next.  

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