Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Swamplandia, by Karen Russell: Even alligator wrestlers grow up

Karen Russell
Vintage Books: New York, 2011
ISBN: 9780307276681

The indomitable Bigtree family has owned and operated Swamplandia!, an alligator wrestling amusement park in the Everglades for decades.  But changes come, as they must, when Hillola Bigtree, matriarch of the current tribe, dies suddenly of cancer, leaving her husband the Chief and their three teenage children, Kiwi, Osceola and Ava to continue running the fading park.  Kiwi, self-proclaimed genius, runs away to the mainland to work for the rival amusement park, ostensibly in the hopes of paying down the mounting debts of Swamplandia!, while Ossie becomes obsessed with the spirit world, convinced she can commune with her ghostly boyfriends.  Chief Bigtree heads to the mainland for an extended business trip leaving Ava and Ossie to run things in his absence.  Meanwhile, Ava, the baby of the family, struggles to accept her mothers death and to understand Ossie.  When Ossie runs away to elope with the ghostly Dredgeman, Ava sets out on a journey to save her that will challenge them all.  Part coming of age tale and part quest, to say this work sparkles with gorgeous descriptive language and crushes you with the sadness of a childhood ending is a vast understatement of Russell's considerable talent as an author.  A Pulitzer Prize finalist, the work is strongly recommended for older high school aged teens and adults for content, complexity in language, and some adult themes.

GUYS.  This book has been on my radar for close to two years now, since a wonderful English teacher  I work with told me that he thought it would have incredible appeal for teens.  He's beyond right; this book is a phenomenon.  The language...is beyond sophisticated, descriptive, gorgeous.  I could tell you how the story is rich and slowly unraveling, the words used carefully considered and sparkling.  I could tell you that it made the swamp come so alive for me that I could almost smell it and feel the humid, stagnant air on my own face.  Instead, I'm just going to tell you the most incredible part: despite being so descriptive and highbrow (and yes, despite having teenage characters living in a swamp, wrestling alligators, etc., it did deservedly get a Pulitzer nod), it is incredibly compelling and accessible, from the relatable characters, to the appealing narrative.  I mean, consider these excerpts, some of my favorites from the book, each which made me pause and reread them, because as writing goes, they are astonishing in their complex yet deceptively simple, natural beauty:

I would vanish on the mainland, dry up in that crush of cars and strangers, of flesh hidden inside metallic colors, the white of the sky over the interstate highway, the strange pink-and-white apartment complexes where mainlanders lived like cutlery in drawers. (p. 70) 
White-tailed deer sprinted like loosed hallucinations between the tree islands. (p. 136) 
[His] own throat was a desert and he couldn't have gotten a word out for one million dollars...You saw a thing like that and you went deep inward, you didn't want to make a single ripple in the air. (p. 147) 
The day was peppery with rain and darkening. (p. 162)
I mean...da-yum, Karen.  I don't think I'll ever again be able to see an overcast day without seeing the truth in how peppery the sky is.  This is the type of book we high school educators love to find; we can trick our students into reading something that feels profoundly accesible, engrossing, curious, but yet that slyly makes them smarter, and truthfully, better people in the reading.  To say I wasn't devastated by the end (and yes, there is a very, very upsetting scene in here, people), is a lie.  But all childhoods end, usually in less horrible ways, but in ways that still manage to rattle and devaste us proportionally as the view of world we construct as kids crumbles around us.  This book captures it so truthfully and hauntingly that it would be a damn shame for you (or your mature students) to miss out.

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