Allegory Wrestling   Leave a comment

What begins campy and comic book-like soon assumes a more serious tone about
familial dysfunction in Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! This enigmatic coming-of-
age story is set in Florida’s Everglades, where the harsh environment is full of danger-
ous creatures and rich in bittersweet memories for the Bigtree family.

Thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree is the narrator for most of the novel; when the setting
switches to the nearby coastal town of Loomis, Russell narrates. Swamplandia! is the
name of the Bigtree family’s alligator theme park. When Ava’s mother, the main attract-
ion as an alligator wrestler, dies, the family disintegrates. Ava’s 16-year-old sister is in
love with a ghost; Kiwi, the older brother, leaves to work at the competing theme park
in Loomis; and Chief, the children’s father, leaves Swamplandia to look, he says, for
funding. Through most of the novel, Ava is the most level-headed, so when she shows
her age, it’s a good thing for the reader, but not so much for Ava.

This is one whopper of a tale, but Russell creates complex characters facing difficult
issues in their lives, not the least of which is dealing with the mother’s death. The back-
drop of the theme park and alligators provides some levity on one hand and heavy-duty
allegory on the other. Russell’s beautifully-written descriptions and sentence structure
are captivating. There are some laugh-out-loud moments countered by creepy events.
Several times I considered closing the book to stop what was likely to happen, but
needed to keep reading just in case I was wrong.

Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2011
316 pages


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