Alfred A. Knopf: 320 pp., $24.95
“Uh-oh. Run for your life. This girl is on fire,” this reviewer wrote in these pages in 2006, when Karen Russell’s unnerving collection of stories, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” appeared on the horizon. “Swamplandia!” (under the name “Ava Wrestles the Alligator”) was a story in that collection, this novel a glimmer in the author’s eye. Here it is again, but older, more mature, bigger in its novel form, like a knock-kneed teenager all grown up.
“Swamplandia!” the novel is magical realism, American style; lush language, larger-than-life surrealism, a vertiginous line on every page between hopes, dreams and reality, a disorienting mirage of a book. What holds it all together is the voice. Russell’s writing is clear, rhythmic and dependable, even as her imagination runs wild.
Instead of a cowboy walking into the sunset, the hero is a 13-year-old girl. Russell knows about girlhood — how precious, how fragile, how tough a girl can be. She knows about human sacrifice too — how the world eats up teenage girls, all their colorful hopes, their bravado soon boiled down to a taciturn obeisance.
Take Ava, the heroine of this novel. Ava Bigtree is growing up in her family’s theme park, Swamplandia, on an island off Florida. Ava’s mother, Hilola Bigtree, is a famous alligator wrestler, beautiful, kind and talented. Ava’s father, Chief Bigtree, “a white guy descended from a coal miner in small-town Ohio,” has big dreams for Swamplandia. Ava’s older brother, Kiwi, doesn’t buy those dreams; he wants to go to a real school on the mainland. Ava’s older sister, Osceola, 16, believes she can communicate with spirits. She rises each night to join her boyfriends from the spirit world. Her father says she’s just lovesick.
Just before Ava turns 13, her mother dies of cancer. Ava, wise beyond her years but new to tragedy, believes that the word malignancy is actually the name of a witch, “Malig Nancy.” This is the kind of magic translation of worldly events that Ava is capable of in the absence of any adult explanations. “Mom was dead, so I thought the worst had already happened to us. I didn’t realize that one tragedy can beget another, and another — bright-eyed disasters flooding out of a death hole like bats out of a cave.” Ava bravely carries on, trying to replace her mother, practicing the tricks her mother taught her with the alligators. Everyone else around Ava fades off — the tourists stop coming after Hilola dies; a nearby competitor, the World of Darkness, steals Swamplandia’s customers; her brother runs away to make money to save Swamplandia, Osceola fades deeper into her delusions and Ava’s father finally leaves for a month to pursue a money-making scheme on the mainland.
Ava calls to mind plucky preteen heroines like Mattie Ross in “True Grit,” or Linda , the unforgettable narrator in the Terrence Malick film “Days of Heaven.” She’s creating her own world as she goes, using her keen imagination and keeping a watchful distance. .
And what a world it is — all of creation rises up around Ava — the swamplands at night: the cattails, pig frogs, cricket frogs, buzzards and palmy undergrowth. The 98 alligators in Swamplandia writhe around the pit, following the sun. The ghost of the witch patrols the perimeter of the property. In the shimmering swamp light, a person gets that “convection” feeling.
“Convection caused your thoughts to develop an alarming blue tinge,” Ava reports with her poetic clarity, “and required touch or speech with another human as its antidote.”
No wonder Osceola takes to the spirit world, where she meets the love of her life, Louis Thanksgiving, who, he assures her, died decades earlier while working as a dredgeman at the tender age of 17. And Lord if they don’t find the dredge, Ava and Ossie, one day. Louis persuades Ossie to elope with him, wearing her mother’s wedding dress, and Ava is left alone.
The gypsy birdman appears one day at the door and offers to take her to the underworld to find Ossie and maybe her mother. And now, you feel a cold shiver, a descent like Orpheus seeking his lover down in the underworld. You no longer knowif imagination really is a foil for something terrible, some trauma beyond a mother’s protection.
You can’t quite trust Ava anymore, and Russell, well, she’s careening off her steady pace into almost trancelike writing as the birdman leads Ava away from all safety and into that terrible, terrible place where childhood ends, where girlhood ends and the human sacrifice begins.
And so, Swamplandia! becomes Neverland, a place Ava, Ossie and Kiwi can never really return to. Ava is damaged, the way girls almost always are. Russell pulls the rug out from under us in a rather brutal way and we are left not knowing whether to laugh and applaud or feel grateful for her survival.
Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer.