Feb/Mar 2011

Into the Wild

Youthful imagination runs rampant in a fictional Florida backwater

Sarah L. Courteau


When Karen Russell's first book, the story collection St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, was published in 2006, it was hailed as dazzling, confident, and inventive. But another adjective has been applied to the author herself: young. Granta listed her among its Best Young American Novelists, and she was featured last summer in the New Yorker's "20 Under 40" issue of America's best younger fiction writers. (Russell will turn thirty later this year.) Now her novel has arrived, packaged as another precocious early accomplishment.

As routine as it is to discuss a young writer primarily in the future tense, it is condescending, and not even very useful. As novelist Kazuo Ishiguro observed in an interview a couple years ago, "There's something very misleading about the literary culture that looks at writers in their thirties and calls them 'budding' or 'promising,' when in fact they're peaking." It's easy enough to think of myriad writers who didn't publish their best work, or publish at all, until they were in their forties or older (Katherine Anne Porter, Sherwood Anderson, Raymond Chandler, Edward P. Jones, and Paul Harding, last year's winner of the Pulitzer for fiction, to name but a few). But there's a finite amount of literary blood and gristle we can deliver ourselves of, and a writer's early work may represent a sizable chunk of the whole. Someone as masterly as Russell isn't a virtuosic embryo to be cooed over but an artist who is presenting as fully formed a creation as she can—and perhaps ever will—conceive.

There's no mistaking Russell's literary turf—adolescent melancholy, eccentric characters, supernatural strangeness, and the kitschy fecundity of her native Florida. In some ways, Swamplandia! is so of a piece with St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves that it reads like an extension of the earlier book. In fact, Russell draws her main narrator—a perceptive but innocent thirteen-year-old, Ava Bigtree—from "Ava Wrestles the Alligator," the opening story of that collection, though some important details have changed. Ava's family home, Swamplandia!, is a washed-up theme park in the middle of a Florida wetland where alligators are raised like livestock. This isolated place—the children are homeschooled so they can help run the business—is quite literally an island unto itself.

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Karen Russell, photo by Michael Lionstar

At Swamplandia!, Ava's—and Russell's—imagination can have free rein; it's a hideaway of wonder and danger that might itself have been conjured by a child. Grieving over the death of her mother, Ava is determined to carry on the family's alligator-wrestling tradition, which dares an animal that "can hoard its violence for millions and millions of years" to bite the hand that feeds it. Her father, known as the Chief, is in denial about Swamplandia!'s financial straits and the competitive threat posed by a vast new landlubbing theme park called the World of Darkness. Ava's dreamy sixteen-year-old sister, Osceola, claims to be carrying on a romance with the ghost of a young man who died in the 1930s while dredging the swamp. Their older brother, Kiwi, possessed of college aspirations that he has no blueprint for achieving, defects to the World of Darkness to work as a janitor.

The Bigtrees epitomize the rampant self-invention that has given so many Americans new life, nowhere more so than in Florida, where, as Ava points out, "every human in the Ten Thousand Islands was a recent arrival." The Bigtree patriarch, known as Grandpa Sawtooth, was a white Ohio coal miner who assumed the identity of a member of a not-quite-specific Indian tribe. Russell puts her own twist on the venerable American tradition of passing: She relishes the irony of tourists who come to Swamplandia! in search of authenticity after seeing a campy billboard, and plays up the Bigtrees' gaudy "native" garb. The theme park's Bigtree Family Museum is a clever metaphor for the way family histories are molded to suit present purposes: "Often the deck of our past got reshuffled overnight. . . . Certain artifacts appeared or vanished, dates changed and old events appeared in fresh blue ink on new cards beneath the dusty exhibits."

As Russell graphically demonstrates with her island-bound clan, a family that lives by its own rules can be a lonely place, and it is this observation, more than her feints toward the supernatural, that resonates throughout Swamplandia! It's a testament to her imaginative and sympathetic powers that I find myself identifying with her young characters as they seek to apply what they know to all that they don't—though I was brought up on a remote farm in the Ozarks, worlds removed from Russell's swampland. Kiwi, in particular, struggles once he arrives at the World of Darkness to relate to peers who sling casual insults and look askance at his bookworm's vocabulary. Once there, Russell gives him his own alternating chapters, which relate some terrifically mortifying adolescent rite-of-passage scenes. "In the staff cafeteria, Kiwi's colleagues taught him that it was unwise to self-describe as a genius at the World," Russell writes. "Telling your fellow workers that you were going to Harvard was a request to have your testicles compared to honey-roasted peanuts and your status as a virgin confirmed, your virginity suddenly as radiant and evident to all as a wad of toilet paper that was stuck to your shoe."

When the Chief vanishes to conduct "business" on the mainland, Ava and Osceola are left alone at Swamplandia! Ava holds out hope that she'll be able to contact her mother on the other side and is drawn in by Osceola's elaborate tales of spectral embraces. Before long, she is struggling to distinguish the worlds of the living and the dead. The signature insight of Russell's work is that adolescence is confusing enough that, sometimes, supernatural explanations make as much sense as any the "real" world might offer.

Soon Osceola disappears, and Ava sets off to find her, with a mysterious guide known as the Bird Man, whose motives are unclear. As Ava and the Bird Man struggle through the swamp to a place called the Underworld, the story takes on an ever more fantastic cast. By the time the shimmer of unreality burns off like swamp mist, you've stopped using your own metrics to distinguish fantasy from reality and begun to use Ava's Brothers Grimm logic. As in a classic old-world fairy tale, her story takes a dark twist in the woods.

But what the lasting inheritance of Ava's formative experience will be isn't clear, because Swamplandia! ends where it begins, in the land of children. Russell's gift for imagining the topography of childhood was already admirably displayed in her offbeat stories of adolescents in St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. There, Russell sets the usual coming-of-age themes of parental loss, sexual awakening, fledgling friendships, angst, and rebellion in unsettling locales—a camp for kids with sleep disorders, a school run by nuns for girls raised by wolves, Swamplandia!—so that we see these traumas play out in a new and revealing light. Yet there's also a bit of Peter Pan in all this. The actions of adults may intrude on the children's stories, but Russell seldom explores their motives or concerns unless they relate to those young worlds.

Young-adult fiction for adults—from Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones and the work of Jonathan Safran Foer to lesser-known novels such as Nellie Hermann's The Cure for Grief—is everywhere. This focus on childhood is fostered in MFA programs and publishing houses hungry for the next hot young thing, but it also reflects a societal shift, as charted in Richard Settersten and Barbara E. Ray's recent study of the slow-to-launch millennial generation, Not Quite Adults. The Laura Ingalls Wilder days, in which children were to be seen and not heard, are a thing of the past. There's a great deal of value and charm to be found in beholding life through the eyes of a child. But it's a dodge, too. The world of adults may not be as wondrous or new, but it's where people must make sense of all that has gone before—a task that's actually quite similar to that of a writer.

Swamplandia! is gorgeously written and, particularly in the sections about Kiwi Bigtree's struggle to integrate into mainland life, tremendously funny. And Russell's flirtation with the fantastic adds a dangerous, off-kilter edge to her work. Salman Rushdie, who guest-edited the Best American Short Stories volume that features Russell's delightful tale about an aging vampire, has called her "the true heir of the ferocious British fabulist Angela Carter."

But Carter used her modern versions of fairy tales to explore adult themes such as female sexuality and patriarchal domination. In Swamplandia!, Russell's dark art remains captive in the consciousness of a young girl who views doubt in the supernatural as "a black mote from the sad world of adults." As Russell demonstrates in Swamplandia!'s powerful chapter about the short, tragic life of Osceola's ghostly Depression-era swamp dredger, she can imagine that adult world—which is, after all, where her readers live—every bit as richly as she does Ava's and Kiwi's. Whether she wants to leave Never Never Land remains to be seen.

Sarah L. Courteau is the literary editor of the Wilson Quarterly.

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