Karen Russell’s novel Swamplandia! tells the familiar story of a death in a family and what happens to the surviving members, but it tells the story in an unfamiliar way. The Bigtree family puts on alligator wrestling shows at a theme park in the Florida Everglades. When the mother, Hilola Bigtree, passes away she leaves behind her husband Chief Bigtree, daughters Ossie and Ava, and son Kiwi. Hilola was the star alligator wrestler at Swamplandia, the family’s theme park, but the tourists quickly stop coming after her death and soon the theme park is all but shut down.
The remaining members of the family head off in different directions. Ossie becomes obsessed with the occult and eventually proclaims to Ava that she has married a ghost. Ava wants to replace her mother as the next great Bigtree alligator wrestler but eventually, after Ossie disappears, goes off to search for her with a strange drifter called the Bird Man. Chief Bigtree leaves for business on the mainland that he says could raise money to save the park, and Kiwi, unimpressed with the chief’s plans, heads to the mainland himself in hopes of making a fortune and sending part of it back to Swamplandia. (He doesn’t realize for much of his mainland adventure that no one is at Swamplandia.) Kiwi’s dreams of success quickly turn into an entry level custodial job at The World of Darkness, the rival theme park that helped drive the last nail in Swamplandia’s coffin. The home schooling Kiwi received growing up in Swamplandia helps him little at The World of Darkness, and his social ineptness is at times an even bigger obstacle. For example, he tries to woo a female coworker by reciting Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to her.
There are dozens of other odd occurrences in Swamplandia!, but all this weirdness is held together by terrific writing, strong characters, and impressive development of the novel’s different settings. Karen Russell is definitely a young writer I’ll be keeping my eye on.