Ava Bigtree, the 13-year-old narrator of Karen Russell's debut novel Swamplandia! (Knopf), is hardly a typical teenage girl. Her family is a fake Indian tribe that lives in the Great Swamp, raising, wrestling, and swimming with alligators. They speak their own language—alligators are called "Seths," public feedings are known as "Live Chicken Thursdays"—and they preserve artifacts of their family history, such as infant moccasins, in a tourist museum.
Russell became known for her wildly imaginative, sometimes mythical settings in her short story collection St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and Swamplandia! reworks one of these stories, "Ava Wrestles the Alligator." Yet what surprised and delighted me most about this novel was how familiar it seemed, not because I've spent much time diving into gator pits, but because, unfortunately, I haven't forgotten the awkward, lovesick loneliness of my teenage years. Being young, the novel suggests, resembles life in the Great Swamp. Seemingly stable places sink out from under you, adventure depends on learning to drive (in this case a seaplane or an antique dredge), friends become enemies, and young women, like Ava and her sister Osceola, always manage to pick the wrong guy.
Since this is a Karen Russell novel, sometimes that guy is a ghost. When Hilola Bigtree, matriarch and legendary alligator wrestler, dies of cancer, Ava's father "Chief" buries himself in drink, grief, and outlandish plans to bring tourists back to the now failing park. Osceola conducts séances, and when she can't reach her mother, she begins to date other ghosts. In true adolescent fashion, she doesn't think she's pretty enough for the best dead men. "Too famous," Osceola chides, when Ava encourages Ouija board flirting with Babe Ruth. "We've got to be realistic here."
Expectations for Russell's novel, however, have hardly been realistic. The 29-year-old has received every imaginable honor a young writer can. Last year The New Yorker named her one of the 20 best American fiction writers under 40; she was also one of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 in 2009. Some have questioned if the praise— like when Granta named her a Best Young American Novelist in 2007, long before she had written a novel—has been eared.
But now that the pre-release hype has subsided a bit, what remains is an assured and classic story of innocence lost—think Huck Finn with gators, casinos, and the occasional video game. The novel contains one weaker storyline, Ava's brother's somewhat predictable stint at a rival theme park: "What do you call a guest at World of Darkness? A Lost Soul." That said, Russell imagines the maze of adolescence with wisdom and authority. The very girlishness of the story, the youthful and poignant way that Ava mythologizes her family, allows Russell an intimate and beguiling voice in which to explore the novel's more serious questions: How does one see the familiar corners of the world after loss? And after loss, is love a source of comfort, or great danger?
"Some team!" Ava laments, as they fail to live happily without their mother. "The Chief was doing so many jobs alone. I'd fix on the Chief's raw, rope-burned palms or all the gray hairs collected in his sink, and I'd suffer this terrible side pain that Kiwi said was probably an ulcer and Ossie diagnosed as lovesickness. Or rather a nausea produced by the ‘black fruit' of love—a terror that sprouted out of your love for someone like rotting oranges on a tree branch. Osceola knew all about this black fruit, she said, because she'd grown it for our mother, our father, Grandpa Sawtooth, even me and Kiwi. Loving a ghost was different, she explained—that kind of love was a bare branch."
Is Osceola really in touch with an underworld? Or is she simply acting as any orphaned teenager might, deranged by the double wash of grief for her mother and new feelings of desire? Ava, and the reader, can't be sure:
"Somehow I had worked it out in mind to where I could believe in my mother without having to believe in ghosts exactly. In fact, I was discovering all sorts of beliefs and skepticisms turning like opposite gears inside me, and little drawers of hopes and fears I had forgotten to clean out. Sometimes, while wandering around the park, I'd still catch myself praying in an automatic way, like a sneeze, that my dead mom's blood test results would come back okay."
In telling Ava and Osceola's ghost stories, Russell echoes what Joan Didion has called "magical thinking," that absurd but persistent partner to grief. Russell does not require her reader to "believe in ghosts exactly," but I found myself wonderfully moved by the Bigtree girls' spiritual investigation, as like all young people confronted by death, they struggle to make peace with what is true and right and believable about the world.
In Swamplandia! love doesn't conquer loss, of course, not directly. While the characters may never be sure who to trust through the swamp, when it comes to navigating the unpredictable waters of growing up, Karen Russell does not steer wrong.