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Carnival Darwinism

Swamplandia!, Karen Russell author, Knopf (2011)

It’s hard to get your bearings in Swamplandia! The story is a fantasy that is partially narrated by the book’s protagonist, a thirteen year old girl, Ava Bigtree. This is not material that would normally interest me, but when it came highly recommended by a trusted source, off I went with the Bigtree family and their odd assortment of calamities.

Forebear of the Bigtree clan, Grandpa Sawtooth Bigtree, née Ernest Schedrach, was born the son of a white coal miner in Ohio, who, after losing his pulp mill job bought ‘farmland’ off the coast of southwest Florida, sight unseen. It turned out to be mostly covered by water with a small habitable island (part of the Ten Thousand Islands) and he named it Swamplandia!, a hundred-acre waste. Grandpa picked the name Sawtooth in “homage to the sedge that surrounded the island; Bigtree because he liked its root-strong sound.” From this point on, the family lineage is a continual fabrication. As Ava points out with respect to the Swamplandia! museum/gift shop, “Certain artifacts appeared or vanished, dates changed and old events appeared in fresh blue ink on new cards beneath the dusty exhibits, and you couldn’t say one word about these changes in the morning. You had to pretend like the Bigtree story had always read that way.”

We are told that at one time Swamplandia! was the number one gator theme park and swamp café in the area. When we meet Ava Bigtree, her mother, Hilola, is its alligator- wrestling star. Four times a week Hilola high dives into the gator pit and swims with the beasts only to surface heroically at the other end. Ava’s father is called the Chief and he runs the park – sort of.  The alligators are all called Seth, collectively, the Seths. There are other zany attractions, like Live Chicken Thursdays and a bear named Judy Garland. At this point I almost put the book down but for a bit of arresting information offered by Ava. “One curious fact about Seth Physiognomy is this: while a Seth can close its jaws with 2,125 pounds per square inch of force, the force of a guillotine, the musculature that opens those same jaws is extremely weak.  This is the secret a wrestler exploits to beat her adversaries – if you can get your Seth’s jaws shut up in your fist, it is next to impossible for the creature to open them again.  A girl’s good ribbon can tie off the jaws of a four-hundred-pound bull gator.”

When Hilola dies of ovarian cancer at age thirty-six, a ”Malig-Nancy” as Ava hears the word, circumstances for the family begin to unravel in earnest.  Ava is left with her sixteen year old sister Osceola, her nineteen year old brother Kiwi and the Chief. As it stands, Osceola is obsessed with an alchemy book called The Spiritist’s Telegraph, her Ouija board and talking to dead people. Kiwi is so starved for a mainland education he gives himself report cards. The Chief is downright deluded. At times Ava’s wise observations exceed her years, “Some things you know right away to be final – when you lose your last baby tooth, or when you go to sleep for the ultimate time as a twelve-year-old on the night before your thirteenth birthday.  Other times, you have to work out the milestones later via subtraction, a math you do to assign significance, like when I figured out that I’d just blown through my last ever Wednesday with Mom on the day after she died.”

With no star attraction the tourists have all fled to the competition, the World of Darkness. The raunchy carnival color at the World of Darkness makes Swamplandia look like a neighborhood kiddie park. For starters, there’s the Leviathan (it’s actually an airplane hanger) that houses creepy rides with crude special effects, guests are called “lost souls” and the baked goods stand is named Devil’s Oven. The World of Darkness promises non-stop thrills at high speed, thus the Chief launches his quaky campaign christened “Carnival Darwinism.”

According to the Chief, the logic is as follows—“Island tameness is the tendency of many populations and species of animals living on isolated islands to lose their wariness of potential predators. We Bigtree’s are an island species.   …A bunch of new and wonderful crap can evolve here because we’re off to ourselves.  But there are also trade-offs.  Island species get complacent.”

On a black board he writes:






The omniscient narrator alternately gives us Kiwi’s point of view. Kiwi is the story’s realist. He is a good kid and you wish the Chief was less of a buffoon so that the family can face what’s really coming down the pike, Osceola’s crossover into the underworld. Even before Ossie’s grip on reality takes a hard right, Kiwi takes action by leaving Swamplandia!, going to work for the  World of Darkness and attend night school. Kiwi is funny too. By his own admission he can more easily imagine his graduation from Harvard than the intervening steps it will take to get into high school. The Chief also takes off for the mainland, presumably on an auspicious business trip, leaving the two girls to fend for themselves.

As Ava writes:
“Week 3: The Chief is still gone.

Seths: Ninety-eight.

Sisters: Two

Brothers: Zero

Tourists: Zero

Ghosts: One

Park Hours: ?

Mom: ???”

Then events take another turn. Ossie wanders off to marry Louis Thanksgiving, a fabricated, and deceased, dredgeman. It is Louis’ story, or The Dredgeman’s Revelation, that pulled me right in. The chapter offers a brilliant writing of family neglect and abuse with a big dose of Florida history. I was partial to the bits about the Model Land Company, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the Melaleuca trees. While in lesser hands this material could have become burdensome and pedantic, it in fact allows Russell to keep the story on this side of plausible. I can’t resist offering the following excerpts: “You sure you want to be a dredgeman for this outfit, Lou? .. You’d be better off gum tapping in the turpentine woods. It’s all soup doodly in those prairies; it ain’t like the pine rocklands. There’s nothing piney about it. No elevation, Lou. No lakes or trees or breaks. It’s jus saw grass til you want to scream. You won’t have a dry day again for months. You’ll go in there and never come out.” And, “The dredge was there to dynamite the marl, spud down into the blasted muck, spud up with a bucket of oozing crust. And this task in a swamp where you could sink a support platform through twenty-four feet of peat before hitting stabilizing rock!”

The wonderfully spirited Ava departs for the underworld in search of Osceola with the Bird Man, who says, “Nobody can get to hell without assistance, kid.” It’s a dark trip cloaked in sweat and peppered with wonderful descriptions of the flora and fauna – herons, feral peacocks, water moccasins, buzzards and saw grass. I won’t say more about the Bird Man except that on or about day three of the search, Ava hears her mother’s voice say, “The Bird Man is just a man, honey. He is more lost out here than you are. The Bird Man has no idea where he’s taking you, and if he does, well that’s much worse, and you won’t find your sister anywhere near there, Ava, and I would run, honey, personally….”

The story wraps up rather quickly with Kiwi making some implausible moves to rescue Ossie and more over, the Chief acting almost like a parent. As I mentioned, initially I was not the most receptive reader and nearly gave up. But as Russell continually collides with the incredulous, she develops her characters with tenderness and humor. The book is an inventive and richly written story about a family’s triumph over obstacle. That is always a good story when handled with keen observation, honesty and wit, as it is in Swamplandia!

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