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Karen Russell's Haunting And Dreamlike 'Swamplandia!'

"Swamplandia!" book cover. It includes an alligator coming out of the grass vertically with its jaws open.
Swamplandia! By Karen Russell

We head into the Everglades with the Sundial Book Club's February 2021 title.

Growing up in South Florida, Karen Russell took regular trips with her family into the swampy regions of the state to some very unique places.

She brings that world to us in her book “Swamplandia!”

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It’s the story of a family pretending to be Native American and operating a gator theme park in the middle of the Everglades. But the family faces numerous losses and each member is forced to head out on their own to make sense of the tragedies and what may come next.

WLRN’s Luis Hernandez spoke with Russell about what inspired this novel, and she answered some of our book club members’ questions.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

WLRN: During your childhood in Florida, how much gator wrestling did you actually get to see?

RUSSELL: I went to the Miccosukee reservation on a field trip. We would go like every year in elementary school. And it left such an impression on me. We went to the Everglades frequently when I was a kid. It was like my favorite place. And it was also sort of terrifying to me in a wonderful way — in this sublime way.

We would go bike riding on Shark River Valley, so nobody was wrestling those alligators. But I do remember the kind of exhilaration of knowing you were prey, potentially, it was a great motivation to kind of keep up with the other people on the bike because you didn't want to fall too far behind in this landscape full of buzzards and alligators. I think that must have imprinted on me strongly, seeing these men on the backs of these Mesozoic creatures.

The story of Eva and her sister, was part of an earlier story, right? That was part of your earlier work, "The St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves."

This novel started as a short story, like a twelve-page short story about these two weird sisters and sort of a mythic version of the Everglades on this very isolated island theme park. And their mother had just died and they were dealing with this loss in different ways. The older sister, who was a teenager — like a horny teenager, but there are not many eligible bachelors on the swamp island. So she was sort of dating the dead, using the Ouija board as like her Rolodex and also using the Ouija board as a means to try and communicate with their mother, who had sort of vanished. Then the little sister was like watching her teenage sister leaving the land, sort of becoming this young woman. I think we forget as adults how terrifying that transition is to undergo. And also, if you're the younger sibling, how frightening it is to feel like maybe you're losing a connection with a sibling who's growing up, who is doing all of these things before you. So that was the story. And I really had this idea that because I knew these characters well and I sort of felt like I knew that landscape, it would be easy to write a novel about them. And that was not the case.

Here you have this family and they sell themselves off as this Native American family running this theme park in the Everglades. But they're not really Native American. They're pretending.

So there’s a brother in his teens and he says to the dad, “this is so messed up. This is wrong, what we're doing.” The dad is going for the same kind of for-profit fantasy you see in a lot of the roadside attractions in Florida and it's a complete papering over of the real horror story of how the collision of early settlers and the Indigenous people of Florida and also, sort of the [Native American] wars that lasted longer than the Vietnam War, which I had no idea about when I started writing this book.

So sort of some of the process of growing up for these kids is coming to understand that what they're doing is indefensible. I think the littlest kid really wants this fiction to be true. She really wants to have a tradition and a home. She wants deep roots in this landscape that she loves. And so maybe she's less willing or able to understand what's happening to her. And she sort of dealing with a lot of loss and doing that kid arithmetic, where she's at that age where she can almost move seamlessly between registers and kind of dip her toe into an adult understanding of what's happening and then she retreats into this kid fantasy world.

The family calls themselves, “the big trees.” And in fact, alligator wrestling, which was a spectacle to draw tourists to Florida, is a stolen tradition. The Seminole and Miccosukee people wrestled alligators for food and for their hides. And there was a performative, ritual aspect to it too and white settlers in Florida saw this and saw an opportunity.

Now, I would approach that aspect of the story very differently. My ambition for the book was to shine a light on the for-profit fantasy and the spectacle versus the real bloody frightening kind of history. I think there are all these ways that you can see that dynamic in Florida — we live on artificial bedrock and [Disney World] itself is like on the dream swamp —it’s a willful amnesia that lets us exploit the land and lets us also exploit other people.