Swamplandia! & Wild

One of my goals this summer was to read more books and I think so far I’ve been doing pretty well. In the past two weeks I’ve read two books, Swamplandia! & Wild. I actually finished Swamplandia! first, but I’ve been mulling it over for about a week.

Swamplandia! is by Karen Russell and I found the book on The New York Time’s Best Seller List. I usually go to this list when I’m looking for good books, because to be honest, it rarely fails me. You can talk all you want about pretension and liberals and all that noise, but the people at The NY Times can pick books. I chose Swamplandia! from the list for a couple of reasons:

1. It has a killer title, right?
2. It was a story about a family and that family contained two sisters.
3. There was an alligator on the cover.

I realize that the last admission might make me sound trite. I’m an English Professor. I know. I’m supposed to pick books based on their literary merit, good reviews and lyrical prose. Yeah, yeah. Well, this time I picked a book based on a cool title and kick ass cover and you know what? I was not disappointed.

Swamplandia! is the story of the Bigtree family told from the point of view of Ava Bigtree, the youngest member of the family.  At the opening of the novel, we learn that the Bigtree family runs a gator park in the Florida Everglades called Swamplandia! We also learn that the family matriarch and star of the show, Hilola Bigtree, has died of cancer leaving her husband Chief, oldest son Kiwi, daughter Osceola and Ava to fend for themselves. What follows is winding narrative of a family splitting apart and coming back together.

The characters in this novel are complicated and fascinating. Ava’s desire to take her mother’s place and save the bankrupt Swamplandia! is the storyline that comes to the forefront, but what we come to find out is that Ava isn’t trying to save the park. She’s trying to save her family.

The details in this novel are rich and fantastical, but they’re also believable. Kiwi, disgusted with his father’s refusal to accept the family’s dire financial situation, leaves home and gets a job at “The World of Darkness” a competing tourist attraction. Osceola becomes obsessed with ghosts and the occult and eventually gets herself involved romantically with a dead sailor named Louis. Yes, he’s dead. Ava puts all her hope in a mutant baby gator and the Chief simply disappears on a “business trip” to the mainland.

This brings me to what I liked best about this book, the thin line between fantasy and reality that all of the characters walk. There is Kiwi’s fantasy that he will save enough money working at “The World of Darkness” to save Swamplandia! There is Osceloa’s fantasy that she will find love in the arms of a ghost. There is the Chief’s fantasy that he can save his family and his business by disappearing to the mainland for a summer and working in a casino and finally, there is Ava’s fantasy that she will save Swamplandia! and become a famous gator wrestler like her mother. 

The reality? It’s a lot uglier but it is tinged with the love and hope that all the characters have. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the final chapters of the book (I won’t give them away here) but I’ve decided that the ending works well. This was the classic tale of a journey and what is true about all journeys is that sooner or later, they have to end.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed is also a story about a journey and while I didn’t do this on purpose, there are definitely some overlapping themes in both Swamplandia! and Wild.

Wild is nonfiction book covering the author’s trek across the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). For those of you who don’t anything about the PCT (which I didn’t before I started reading this book) this is no walk in the park. Strayed (the story of her last name is covered in the book) started her hike in Mojave, CA and ended it at The Bridge of Gods in Oregon. This is the map that Strayed included in the opening of the book.

Coincidentally, this story also begins with the loss of Strayed’s mother, Bobbi, to lung cancer.  Admittedly, there were points in this book where I felt like there was not one more sad, unfortunate or self-destructive thing that could happen to this woman (and this was before she started her hike on the PCT) and I’m sure some people would find this a burden. However, if you read previous posts from me concerning memoir and nonfiction, you know that I love stories about people rising above adversity and I’m not turned off my hardship, no matter how terrible the author suffers. This book made me cry, it made me sigh, and it made me laugh. It is essentially a journey through grief and if you’ve ever grieved deeply, you’ll feel a certain kinship with Strayed. You will also feel admiration.

I picked up Wild because I heard the second half of an interview with Strayed on NPR and I was intrigued. I came into the interview when she was reading the prologue of the book, which begins like this:

The trees were tall, but I was taller standing above them on a steep mountain slope in northern California. Moments before, I’d removed my hiking boots and the left one had fallen in those trees, first catapulting into the air when my enormous backpack toppled into it, then skittering across the gravelly trail and flying over the edge.

My first thought was (because I had missed half the interview) how the hell did she hike with one boot? Then I heard her continue:

I clutched its mate to my chest like a baby, though of course it was futile. What is one boot without the other boot? It is nothing. Useless, an orphan forevermore, and I could take no mercy on it. It was a big lug of a thing, of genuine theft, a brown leather Raichle boot with a red lace and silver fasts. I lifted it high and threw it with all my might and watched it fall into the lush trees and out of my life.

My second thought: She did what?

I knew I had to read the book. You should read it too.

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