There was an outcry last year when the Pulitzer Prize judges decided not to award the Fiction prize—the first time since 1977. For me, the biggest story to come out of this was not the suggestion that no American fiction deserved the prize—that seems ridiculous—but that the shortlist is picked by a different jury to the eventual winners, which seems like a fairly ridiculous way to pick a winner. So, if it didn’t win the Pulitzer, is Swamplandia! still a good novel?
The Bigtree tribe are in trouble. Ever since the death of Hilolia Bigtree, wife to Chief Bigtree, mother to Kiwi, Osceola and Ava, and alligator wrestler extraordinaire, the theme park they run in Everglades, Swamplandia!, has been bleeding customers. Each family member tries to solve the problem in a different way, but when Osceola’s attempts to speak to the dead lead her to a portal that leads to the underworld, Ava knows she must stop her before it is too late.
I mentioned when I reviewed Favel Parrett’s debut novel, Past the Shallows, that it was a novel about motherhood—but a novel about the absence of mothers, and what happens when they aren’t there to pick up the pieces. Though Russell’s Swamplandia! goes about it in perhaps the directly opposite direction, she too is concerned with the role of the mother in the modern family, and what happens to an otherwise tightly-knit unit when someone dies.
According to the internet (which is never wrong), the first chapter of this novel originally appeared as a short story, a fact that should not be surprising to anyone who actually reads said chapter. In something like 15 pages, Russell sets up this beautiful, wonderful world where the three children of the Bigtree family seem to live a life other children can only dream about. They live in a theme park where, instead of maths and science, they are taught the family business: wrestling alligators.
As with all dreams, though, it fast becomes apparent that things cannot remain as they are. Ava’s mother discovers she has cancer, and dies. With their star attraction—the alligator wresting lady—gone, the theme park quickly loses customers, business, and as a result, money. The eldest child, Kiwi, is book-smart, despite only ever being home-schooled, and all he wants to do is go to the mainland and finish high school. But Osceola, the middle child, does not handle the death so well. She quickly becomes obsessed with a book of magic she finds, and decides that she can talk to the dead.
While this might well be a normal coping mechanism for teenagers trying to come to terms with the loss of a parent, in Ossie’s case, it rapidly becomes both emotionally and physically dangerous. With her father visiting the mainland on business, Ossie and Ava are left alone on an abandoned theme-park island. No, I know—it’s not really a solid parenting choice from Chief Bigtree, but his reasons for doing so do become clear in the end. For now, it’s just a convenient excuse to get rid of all the adults so the children can play.
When Ossie goes missing, thinking her current dead boyfriend can lead her to the portal of the underworld so she can talk to her mother, Ava sets out to stop her. Before she leaves, though, a strange man—Bird Man—appears, telling her he knows how to get to the portal. He volunteers to take her, and Ava, being a naïve 13-year-old, readily accepts. And so begins a chase through the Everglades that we all know can only end in tragedy.
The magical realism of this chase is misdirection at its best. Reading it in parallel with Kiwi’s tale, which is told in alternating chapters to the sisters’ caper, it should be obvious to anyone that the Bird Man is not who he claims to be, and that Osceola is, of course, not actually seeing ghosts. Who Bird Man really is, though, is an even more horrific thought than a teenager dating a ghost. Bird Man is probably up there with Joffrey Baratheon in terms of fictional characters who really aren’t very nice. We hear stories of men grooming young children on the internet, praying on vulnerable kids trying to find someone to talk to, and though the conduit through which he does this is different, here is another tale of grooming.
By the climax of the novel, everything that didn’t make sense in the beginning finally does. Russell manages to bring together all these strands neatly—if a little hurriedly. It is not until then that you finally realise what has been staring you in the face the entire time. Alligators are just a shiny object to get you hooked.
The word ‘quirky’ is thrown around a lot these days, often to its detriment. But Swamplandia! really is quirky. From the exclamation mark in the title to the red alligator that Ava discovers in her batch of alligator eggs, there are things about this novel that set it apart from all others. In the hands of a lesser author, the quirks and affectations of this novel—the fact that it is set in a ridiculous alligator theme park, the faux Southern Gothic style evoked by Osceola’s adventures—would overpower the emotional connection the reader has to a family struggling to keep themselves together in the wake of a true tragedy. But to Russell’s credit, she never gets bogged down in these accoutrements and decorations. She really is concerned with focusing on characters and their reactions and development.
Swamplandia! is a novel about grief. Ignoring the exclamation mark in the title, this is a serious and moving look at one family struggling to come to terms with death. Ignore the stonking great red alligator on the cover—it’s a cheap distraction from a work that has, at its heart, a tender and heartrending exploration of people that feel so real, you just want to hug them.