Wednesday, March 7, 2012

SWAMPLANDIA! by Karen Russell

I had a hard time figuring out what type of book this is.  Is it a ghost story, an adventure, a fantasy, a family drama or what?  It's about three children who have grown up on an island in the Everglades at their family's theme park, Swamplandia!   (The exclamation point is part of the park's name.)  The main attraction was the children's alligator-wrestling mother, Hilola, until her recent death from cancer.  The crowds are dwindling, partly due to Hilola's absence and partly due to competition from an underworld-themed park called World of Darkness.  Alternating chapters focus on the oldest child, Kiwi, a teenage boy, who dreams of an Ivy League college education, although he's never attended school.  He takes off on his own and gets a job at World of Darkness, where he gets a reality check and struggles to make some money to help bail out the family business.  The father also heads to the mainland for a few weeks on some unknown quest, leaving his 2 daughters, Osceola and Ava, behind.  They fill their days attempting to contact their dead mother via a Ouija board and exploring the area, particularly a derelict dredge barge.  The 13-year-old Ava is our other narrator, who becomes alarmed when her older sister ostensibly elopes to the underworld with a ghost from the barge.  An indulgent itinerant man known as the Bird Man, claiming to know how to reach the gate to the underworld, agrees to help the despondent Ava find Osceola.  He doesn't scoff at her wacky story, seems trustworthy enough, and, well, he's the only adult around.  I was surprised at how this journey ultimately plays out, simply because I wasn't sure how fanciful or true to life the book was supposed to be.  I found that uncertainty somewhat intriguing, but for the most part I thought the plot dragged a bit.  There's a fairly long recounting of the life of Osceola's phantom fiancé, and I never grasped what the purpose of that was.  One thing is for certain:  the underworld that Ava and the Bird Man reach is a very scary place where bad things happen, but that's no surprise at all.

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