One Woman Book Club: Swamplandia!

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Swamplandia! first caught my attention when I heard about it on NPR (or here). If you’d asked me, I would have said the book came out in 2014, but apparently it was 2011. Time just keeps slipping away…

It took me a while to really get into the book. It made me chuckle and the lovely writing kept me going, but I wasn’t sure where it was headed (which, I guess, is a good thing in a world where so much seems so obvious all the time). But in the end I was glad I stuck it out.

Author Karen Russell told NPR, “The Bigtree family members have created their own fantastical history springing from their alligator-wrestling tradition, but in reality, they’re just the lowly operators of a shabby tourist attraction in a swamp.” Swamplandia! is funny, and weird, and heartbreaking. You’ll find yourself wishing the place was real so you could give the family your tourist dollars… but if you don’t like to see characters you care about punished, it may not be for you.

I ventured on to the web to find questions to help me discuss this latest read. Here it goes!

How did Chief’s myth-making affect his children? How might things have been different if he’d been more truthful?

The Chief is infuriating. He is wrapped up in his own grief, and the myth of the Bigtrees to the point of neglecting his children. And because he’s spent so much time force-feeding them the legends of the swamp, and filling their heads with ideas of their own superiority that the girls can’t see people and behavior for what they are. Kiwi, for all his nerdiness, is the only one smart enough to see the world for what it is before it’s too late. Of course, when he’s confronted with the real world, he finds himself missing Swamplandia!

If the Chief had done something as simple as telling his kids where he was going, or admitted that Osceola needed help, a lot of trouble and tragedy could have been avoided.

What does Ava’s red alligator represent? And the melaleuca trees?

On the surface, a red reptile is very reminiscent of the devil — the serpent. But that doesn’t seem the be the case here. The red “Seth” is the last remnant of Ava’s innocence. She secrets the creature away, and nurtures it in the hopes that it can help save her family’s home. And she eventually abandons it in order to save her life (I’m trying to avoid spoilers). Gone forever, we have no idea what becomes of the Seth.

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Is this the red Seth?

The malaleuca trees are the epitome of government incompetence, ecological disaster, and impending doom for the Bigtrees who are in a constant battle against the invasive species. We know that their struggles against the plant are a stand-in for their struggles against the “World of Darkness” and the rest of the outside world.

What is the significance of the Mama Weeds passage? What do we learn from it?

This was one of the saddest parts of the book for me. Mama Weeds is a strong woman, carving out a life for herself in the swamp, who is eventually undone by the people around her  who can’t stand to see that–or, at least we think that’s what happened to her. When Ava encounters the women she thinks is Mama Weeds she is incapable of seeing an ally, someone who can help her, and she runs. Thanks to the Bird Man betraying her trust, she can no longer accept the kindness of strangers.

On page 198, Ava recites a credo: “I believe the Bird Man knows a passage to the underworld. I believe that I am brave enough to do this. I have faith that we are going to rescue Ossie.” Was she right about any of this?

In a way, she’s right about all of it. The Bird Man takes her to the “underworld,” just not the one she was bargaining for. Ossie is eventually rescued, though not by Ava. And most importantly, Ava finds out that she is brave enough–and smart enough–to survive just about anything.

In the end, the Bigtrees come back together as a stronger tribe than ever before–but with more secrets than ever before.

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