Saturday, July 9, 2011

CR Review #21: Swamplandia! By Karen Russell

I used to love when Stephen King would crank out his annual list of the best books he had read every year for Entertainment Weekly magazine. I would make notes of the ones that sounded interesting and read as many as I could get my hands on. He's had some great suggestions (Battle Royale!), so when he enthusiastically recommended Swamplandia! -- the story of a family of alligator wrestlers in the Florida swamps -- I couldn't wait to read it.

Quirky characters with strange occupations? Yes, please. A fun title? All right, bring it on.

Sadly, this is the first time that Stephen has let me down. I cannot begin to describe the distaste that Swamplandia! has left in my mouth.

Swamplandia! is the story of the Bigtree family, and the small alligator wrestling show that they put on deep in the swamps of Florida. Dad (the Chief) is the businessman, Mom (Hilola) is the beautiful daredevil that attracts crowds from miles away, Kiwi is the brainy (or so he likes to think) brother who dreams of a regular life on the mainland, Osceola is the pretty older sister, and young Ava (the heroine of the story) wants nothing more than to be just like her mother.

But this is not a happy story, nor a fun story. Hilola dies of cancer almost immediately (not a spoiler) and the majority of the book is about the family's inability to continue functioning without her. Nobody does laundry or bathes. Nobody eats anything resembling a meal. The alligator park starts losing tourists and money. Osceola becomes obsessed with the afterlife -- she makes a Ouija board and holds seances to communicate with the dead. Kiwi runs away to the mainland to work at a competitor's amusement park (the World of Darkness). And The Chief leaves the two girls home alone on the island while he goes off for weeks to try and get more money to save the park.

Without any parents or an older brother to keep an eye on them, Osceola and Ava have the run of the island. Osceola spends all of her time with her new boyfriend -- a ghost named Louis Thanksgiving, who died in the swamps during the depression -- and one day, she runs away to "elope" with Louis, leaving young Ava all alone. Ava, brave and strong, but still only 11 or 12, finds help to go after her sister and embarks on a dangerous journey to bring her home.

And this is where the story takes a turn for the worse for me. If you've read it, you know what I'm thinking about. The last third of this book is pretty depressing, and now I'm going to need some fluffy chick lit to get the upsetting parts out of my brain.

Karen Russell is a talented writer. Her ability to bring these characters to life is unquestionable. However, I wish she hadn't tried so hard to be "QUIRKY" all the time. It got old after a while. I did find the history of the Florida swampland interesting, and wish there had been more of the book devoted to that aspect of the story.

I'm sure I"ll be a sucker for more Stephen King recommendations in the future, but I'll be sure to read some Amazon reviews beforehand next time.

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