Remember a while back when I posted about “the bookworm’s disease?” About how I couldn’t decide what to read next and how I had a huge pile of TBRs? Well sadly, I only read one. In a combination of work, discovery of new (to me) TV shows, and another book pile, this one full of non-historical fiction books (think Runner’s World Complete Book of Women’s Running and Wheat Belly). However, the main reason I only read one of these books is because I liked it, but I didn’t love it, and therefore it took me a really long time to finally finish, and during that time I didn’t want to start a new book and leave Swamplandia! to gather dust until I ran out of renewals and finally returned it, unfinished.
Swamplandia! follows the lives of the alligator wrestling Bigtree family, or tribe, as they call themselves, complete with a tribal history. The Bigtrees, lead by Chief Bigtree and Grandpa Sawtooth run a theme park called Swamplandia! featuring a variety of alligators (Seths, as the Bigtrees call them), an old bear, and of course alligator wrestling. When Hilola Bigtree, the star wrestler and mother of Kiwi, Osceola (Ossie) and Ava dies of cancer the family and the park begins to fall apart. Perhaps its loneliness, or a real supernatural aptitude but Ossie begins “dating” ghosts of the area, and falls hard for one in particular–Louis Thanksgiving. While Ossie immerses herself in the world of ghosts, Chief Bigtree leaves to raise money for his “Carnival Darwinsm” plan and Kiwi deflects to The World of Darkness, ostensibly to get his GED and earn money for the family. Throughout all this, Ava tries to keep Swamplandia! alive and keep Ossie out of trouble, until Ossie decides to elope with Louis and Ava must save her.
Apparently, the characters and the setting of Swamplandia! began as a short story in Karen Russell’s critically acclaimed short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. While I haven’t read the story or the collection, I think that Russell’s writing is better suited for short stories. The novel sounded promising and started out good–quirky but not too quirky and supernatural without being totally unrealistic. However, as the novel continued the quirkiness became tiresome and the characters lost their appeal. Considering that I’m not a fan of supernatural and fantasy stories, I thought I might lose interest once Ossie fell in love with a ghost, but Ossie’s became the strongest story of the novel. Swamplandia! begins to lose focus when Kiwi set off for The World of Darkness. What started out as a play on our society’s obsession or fascination with the darker side soon turns into a bizarre and unbelievable place, made more so by the cardboard characters that populate the amusement park. Kiwi himself lacks character, but his new friends are such one-dimensional stereotypes it’s almost hard to read.
In the end, I started pulling for a real supernatural twist. I wanted to explore more of the relationship between Ossie and her ghost. But, sadly, the end of the novel is as lackluster as The World of Darkness.