Spied the illustration on the cover almost at the same moment the man did. Then I ungraciously pushed past him, snatched up Karen Russell's 2011 'Swamplandia!', glanced at the back cover, and called dibs.The man narrowed his eyes, "Not fair. I want to read that too." I cracked up with mirth. "Sorry. Wait 6 hours okay? I read faster than you. Anyway, there's a whole other pile of books you can digest first."
Whimsically set in a Florida alligator theme park, Swamplandia! in Everglades, the three-generation Bigtree family has moved here from Ohio to set up shop, performing daredevil acts with alligators. Alligator wrestlers, they call themselves. They then suffer a loss of their star performer- Hilola Bigtree when ovarian cancer took her. Her husband Chief Bigtree moped. Her young daughters and son cope with her death in their own ways. Young daughter Ava who has a pet alligator named Seth, narrates the events. She tells us how her older sister 16-yr-old Osceola deals with the pain by running off into the swamps with a phantom lover. Her brother Kiwi, went over to another theme park aptly named 'World of Darkness'. (Read reviews here, here, here and here.)
We kids cultivated a faith in all the Bigtree legends - I'd heard them so often from my parents that they seemed to me like memories I'd made myself. At the time, I also had faith that my pet Seth and I would be champions - how could it be otherwise? In fact I sort of thought this future must exist somewhere, the year of our triumph floating in utero in outer space, as small as the pinheads of stars.
Reading about the happenings through a child's mind, we wonder how blurry the line is between reality and fantasy. By the time Osceola (or affectionately, Ossie) runs off and Ava sets out to find her, we're told that she has her pet alligator for company and a companion who calls himself 'Bird Man' who guides her through. I'm like...seriously...'Bird Man'?! Anyway. We're in the realm of bits of fantasy and I shall take it at face value and read it like a dream.
The whole point is, at the end of the book, the children, who grew up in Swamplandia! and live their all their lives, and never really integrated into the supposed mainstream education facilities, finally move back to mainland to begin formal schooling. But Ossie is put on meds for a long time by the school psychiatrist. So what's really real and what's not? Ultimately, it doesn't matter. It's a series of events as seen through the minds of the children, and it's about them, not us.
I think the Chief was right about one thing: the show really must go on. Our Seths are still thrashing inside us in an endless loop. I like to think our family is winning. But my brother and sister and I rarely talk about it anymore - that would be as pointless as making a telephone call to say, "Kiwi, are you there? Listen: my blood is circulating," or, "Howdy, Ossie, it's today, are you breathing?" We used to have this cardboard clock on Swamplandia! and youi could move the tiny red hands to whatever time you wanted, NEXT SHOW AT _:_ O'CLOCK!