Throughout Swamplandia!, author Karen Russell leads the reader along the fine line between fantasy and reality. The Bigtree family has created their own history (they’re not Native Americans, but their father pretends to be), and Russell creates a fantasy home for them as well. The kids grow up at a decrepit amusement park deep in the Florida swamps, wrestling alligators before dwindling tourist audiences. They know little of the mainland except what they glean from the Midwesterners who show up at their dock. They’re home-schooled, protected and ignorant of the ways of the world.
Trouble lurks from the start. The mother, the sun around which the family revolves, dies of cancer. A new park, The World of Darkness, has opened on the mainland, draining business from the swamp. The Bigtrees are spinning out of control and running out of money.
On a grounded library boat, Osceola, the oldest daughter, finds a book about the occult and begins channeling ghosts. Her father thinks it’s a minor problem of being 16 and “lovesick,” and he might be right. “It could be worse,” Chief Bigtree says, “at least she’s not dating some mainland jackass with a motorcycle, huh?” To which his son, Kiwi, replies, “That’s the bright side here, that the dead man does not have a piercing?”
Smart, well-read Kiwi wants to save his family. He runs away to the mainland and gets a job at The World of Darkness, nicknamed by its employees as “The World,” which it represents (as in the real world is hell), and which is opposite of Swamplandia! (heavenly, otherworldly). The other teenagers on staff at The World tease Kiwi without mercy, in a ritual he passes by ceasing to use big words, learning to tolerate rap music and saying, “fuck you, bro,” when the situation calls for it.
At 13, Ava is the youngest, trained by her mother to wrestle alligators. She’s good at it and confident of her skill. Both Ava and Kiwi provide points of view: Ava in the first person and Kiwi in the third. But it’s Ava who drives the story.
When Chief Bigtree goes on “a business trip,” Osceola elopes with her ghost to get married in the Underworld. Kiwi’s already gone, working at The World. Ava is left alone. She can take care of herself, she thinks. She has canned goods and crackers. But she’s worried about Ossie.
So when a strange “Bird Man” shows up and says he’ll take her to find her sister, she’s happy for his help. He’s an odd guy who may or may not be what he says he is: a man who can communicate with birds. We see the Bird Man in images of the vulture, and of death with his hooded coat and crooked staff. Ava trusts him immediately because she doesn’t know not to. We don’t trust him, but we’re walking that fine line again—we’re not sure. Via their quest, the author leads us through a land that is at once fantasy and fact.
While Kiwi works at the ersatz Hell and Ossie seeks the real one, Ava is the one who finds it. I’m appalled at what happens to her because I know it’s appalling, but although she knows it’s bad, she’s too ignorant to be equally appalled.
All three kids go through hell to save each other. Their lack of contact with the real world has tricked them into danger. Ava can take care of herself in the swamp. She can wrestle alligators and win. But that’s the predator she knows. In Russell’s story, it’s the predators we don’t know that are the most dangerous.
Petrea Burchard is a Pasadena photographer, blogger, actress, voice-over talent and author. She contributes book reviews to Hometown Pasadena, for which we and our readers are very grateful. Find more Petrea doings, writings, and photography at PetreaBurchard.com and LivingVicuriously.
Camelot & Vine can be bought locally at Vroman’s, the Pasadena Museum of History, Webster’s Fine Stationers in Altadena and the Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeeshop. The ebook version is available for Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Kobo, Diesel, Smashwords, and the Sony eReader.