Kira’s #CBR5 “Review” #37: Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell

swampThere’s a strong chance that any attempt on my family’s part to co-operate some sort of theme park would end in both tears and shouted insults regarding business acumen (also probably bankruptcy). You see, we Bindrims are not meant to work in concert, and it’s really in everyone’s best interest that we reserve our interactions for lesser affairs, like the Thanksgiving table. Still, whenever I stumble onto a movie or book predicated on the notion of a family-run entertainment venue (in a fit of boredom, I even watched Dolphin Tale a few weeks ago) I can’t help but envy the unique camaraderie that comes with providing a bit of wacky family-run family fun.

Which brings me to Swamplandia! A gator-wrestling theme park in the Florida Everglades, Swamplandia! is owned and operated by the Bigtree family, whose implied tribal background is just that: implied. In reality, the Bigtrees are made up of dad (the Chief), mother Hilola, daughter Osceola, son Kiwi and daughter Ava, the last of whom is our narrator. The family-run operation — accessible only by boat — is chugging along smoothly until the relatively sudden death of Hilola, who in addition to being the maternal unit is also Swamplandia’s star attraction: Every night she dives headfirst into a pit of alligators in what’s referred to as “Swimming with the Seths” (all of the alligators are named, and referred to as, Seth). After Hilola’s death, her surviving family members are distraught, and Swamplandia struggles to retain its fan base absent a main attraction.


Then things start to get weird. Strapped for cash and withdrawn from his family, Chief Bigtree departs for the mainland to try and raise funds for his Swamplandia recovery plan. Left to their own devices, the kids splinter: Kiwi defects to World of Darkness, a rival theme park; Osceola begins communicating with (and dating) long-dead spirits in the Florida swamps; and Ava, stressing the gradual disintegration of her family, departs on her own mission to try and bring them back together.



Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #72: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell


At just under 400 pages, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! seemed to stretch out further than Stephen King’s weightiest door-stopper. My being exhausted for much of it added to that skewed perception, I’ll admit. To overcome a pair of drowsy eyes, an author must enrapture me so fully that sleep no longer even enters into my mind, a task I could immediately tell Russell was not up to. It wouldn’t be until later in the book that she’d draw my ire (and a rating of 1), but the early-going didn’t have that winning formula either, trundling along towards a 2, at best.

Truthfully, the end has biased me against the whole, in effect giving me selective amnesia by wiping out all memory of what made the latter parts disappointing by comparison. I recall Russell grabbing my attention with the story of how Louis Thanksgiving, whose ghost Osceola falls in love with, came to die. Similar to the story that gives Stephen King’s The Wind Through the Keyhole its name, I’d rather she have repackaged it as a short story, not had it lose its luster by virtue of being alongside all the surrounding dreck that comprised the rest of the story.

As with the aforementioned book, it reads like a rough sketch written in service of that one tale, meant to justify its existence. Likewise, the way Russell closes out the book feels as if it written because the story needed an ending, having nothing to do with providing actual closure. Not long ago I read Small Steps, an unworthy sequel to Holes where Armpit is unwittingly sent off on a journey that ends in the precise spot it began, and Swamplandia! is but a small step (pun intended) from it, Russell giving you the illusion that her characters have passed go on her Monopoly board when, in reality, it just took them a couple hundred pages to move one space.

A move they, and Russell, make clumsily. The characters she drove apart are thrust back together due to the most coincidental of coincidences and the story… just ends. They are finally pushed in one unified direction, but we hardly get to see them gesture that way before Russell sees fit to stop. It’s maddening, and were I not trying to abstain from spoilers, I would use this as an opportunity to vent more openly about it.

Suffice it to say, the events leading up to the finale aren’t expounded upon anymore than that finale itself. In relation to one event in particular, Russell lets an elephant into the room, then acts as if to pretend we hallucinated it, that it was never there in the first place. Those who have read the book should get what I’m so vaguely hinting at.

Were this a short story, I’d be more forgiving. It’s the way in which Russell made the story seem to drag out into oblivion that upped my overall disappointment. In other words, I’ll stick to her short stories; at least with them she has less time to piddle around, and so the ending is more anomaly than natural extension. I won’t count her out entirely as a novelist, since Vampires in the Lemon Grove did have one instance where she displayed the ability to stretch a story out and write a worthwhile ending, but I’m not going to make the same mistake again and think that, by giving her more room to work, it’ll magically fix all her problems. More often than not, they’re too overwhelming to overcome. However, her short stories make them seem a little less insurmountable, and for that I appreciate them.


Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.