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Posts Tagged ‘Everglades’

Back in the early 1930s, a white Ohio timber mill worker bought — sight unseen —  what he thought was prime Florida farmland. Sure enough, his Everglades parcel ”turned out to be covered with six feet of crystal water. Stalks of nine-foot saw grass glittered in the wind, in every direction, the drowned sentinels of an eternal slough.”

But Grandpa Sawtooth Bigtree, who changed his name to suit his new surroundings, saw possibilities in a hundred-acre island inhabited by hundreds of alligators. He called the gators all “Seth,” and their home (now his), “Swamplandia!” Soon the tourists were flocking by ferry to see Grandpa’s son, the Chief, wrestle the primordial beasts into submission, and daughter-in-law Hilola, “swim with the Seths” by starlight in the silky black water.

Ava Bigtree, the 13-year-old narrator of Karen Russell’s picaresque debut novel, Swamplandia!, summarizes the glory days of gators and airboat rides, reptile walks and cheesy souvenirs, within a few pages. Then she gets down to business, noting: “The Beginning of the End can feel a lot like the middle when you are living in it.”

Swamplandia! is under seige, threatened by suburbs and Big Sugar to the south, the invasive melaleuca woods to the northeast. The Bigtrees are falling, too. First, Grandpa Sawtooth, slipping into senility, exiled to mainland assisted-living. Next, the lovely headliner Hilola, succumbing to cancer. The grieving Chief and his three teenagers — brainy Kiwi, beautiful Osceola, resourceful Ava — do their best to carry on, but then the death knell tolls: a modern theme park arises nearby. The World of Darkness offers “escalator tours of the rings of Hell, bloodred swimming pools, boiling colas. Easy access to the mainland roads.”  

Russell charts the decline and fall of Swamplandia! with the sure hand and silver tongue of a born storyteller. The Chief goes AWOL, Kiwi defects to the dark side by working for the competition and going to school. Osceola, possessed with the spirit world, runs away with a possibly phantom lover. And Ava sets out on a perilous journey with the mysterious Bird Man to try and rescue her family. A rare red alligator may yet save the day.

Russell’s inventive tale grew out of one of the stories in her acclaimed first collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. A Miami native, she’s just 29 and already honored as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists and a New Yorker “20 under 40” writer. Swamplandia! dazzles as bright as the sun even as it casts an unsettling shadow of innocence and paradise lost.

Open Book: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell is being released this week by Alfred A. Knopf. I received a bound manuscript from the publisher, but I plan to buy a copy because I want it for my Florida collection and for its most excellent cover.

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