A couple months ago, it was announced that Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!, would be speaking at the Decatur Book Festival. At the time I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I had heard so much about this unique little book, penned by one of The New Yorker’s 20 authors under 40. What’s more, as my mother’s side of the family are native Floridians (as opposed to the migratory variety) and I have some personal history with the wild terrain of the state (we once embarked on a terrifying boat holiday through Lake Okeechobee where I spent the majority of the trip eyeing the sunbathing alligators and panicking whenever any member of my family ventured too close to the edge of the boat), I felt a certain amount of loyalty to read a story depicting Florida in the same spooky light that I remember it.
On the other hand, there’s the issue of the alligators. Namely the picture on the book cover: a giant, evil-eyed, red-mouthed – obviously hungry – alligator lunging for a woman and little girl. The story is about a family of alligator wrestlers. Can you imagine? The protagonist is a thirteen year old girl who, crazily, seems not to be afraid of the 80 plus alligators swimming in a pit outside her bedroom window. Indeed, she even seems to be under the illusion that she can wrestle them.
For someone with an admittedly abnormal, neurotic, trauma-induced fear of alligators, that scenario has all the markings of a terrible reading experience.
But, as you probably guessed, I read it anyways.
And do you know, Ava Bigtree is my new literary heroine?
Don’t misunderstand, there were some creepy scenes in this book, though, certain humans and not the alligators are the real monsters. But ultimately, this is a story about grief (what story isn’t?). How each of the three Bigtree children (ages 13, 16 and 18) grapple with their grief over their mother’s death is at times comical, heart-breaking, disturbing and at times courageous. Russell creates a clear ranking of our fears: the physical through to the psychological and emotional. And let me tell you, alligators rank pretty low on that scale.
That kind of put my own fears into perspective. Not that I’m planning on wrestling gators any time soon. But seeing Ava battle her fears, courageously let go of her ghosts, for a minute, gave me the courage to do the same with mine.
This post is starting to sound like a therapy session, which is definitely NOT the message I wanted to get across. And that’s not why you should read this book. You should read the book because Russell really comes into her stride around the time one of the characters starts going on dates with ghosts. Yes, you read that right. And around the time another character starts working at a rival amusement park called, and I kid you not, The World of Darkness, which purports itself as a kind of hell: “Weeeeee, we’re swimming in a giant wave pool where the water’s been dyed red! Like blood! Weeeee!” If that’s not a bit of satire on our country’s amusement park culture, I don’t know what is.
And if the book puts some of your own fears into perspective, that’s okay too. A little self-realization is never a bad thing. After all, isn’t that the point of good literature? To remind us who we are and to reveal something about ourselves, our world?
If you’ve read Swamplandia!, what did you think? If you haven’t, would you like to? And since I’ll hopefully be hearing Karen Russell speak at the DBF, I would love to have suggestions for questions I could ask her. My big one is: Did you wrestle and alligator or watch someone wrestle an alligator when you were researching this book?