Back in April, a reader wrote to me about Karen Russell's Swamplandia! I got an ebook of it today and will start working through it, posting notes here as I go. Based on what I read in April, I am not looking forward to this book in which a family plays Indian. If the characters were playing Black, I wonder if the book would have gotten the kudos it received from NPR and the New York Times?
Update: 2:15 PM CST, Jan 2, 2010
This update consists of my comments and summaries from chapter 1 through chapter 5.
Note 1: My comments on each chapter are indented and in bold text. Plain font is for summary.
Note 2: Don't read any further if you don't want to know what happens in the book. In other words, Note 2 is a spoiler alert.
Note 3: I'm reading the book in ebook format. I don't have reliable page numbers for excerpts I use below. At some point I'll get a hard copy and add page numbers.
Chapter One: The Beginning of the End
We meet the family:
the dad: "Chief Bigtree"
the mom: "Hilola Bigtree"
the older sister: "Osceola"
the older brother: "Kiwi"
the grandfather: "Sawtooth"
the protagonist: Ava
That is quite a set of names! Will we find out that Ava also has a nickname? And how did Russell (the author) settle on Osceola as the name for Ava's sister? Osceola was a Seminole leader. On the Seminole Nation's website, he is described as follows: "Elegant in dress, handsome of face, passionate in nature and giant of ego, Osceola masterminded successful battles against five baffled U.S. generals, murdered the United State's Indian agent, took punitive action against any who cooperated with the white man and stood as a national manifestation of the Seminoles' strong reputation for non-surrender."
Ava tells us that her family, "the Bigtree tribe of the Ten Thousand Islands" runs an alligator theme park in Florida called Swamplandia! On promotional billboards, they wear
Indian costumes on loan from our Bigtree Gift Shop: buckskin vests, cloth headbands, great blue heron feathers, great white heron feathers, chubby beads hanging off our foreheads and our hair in braids, gator "fang" necklaces.
Although there was not a drop of Seminole or Miccousukee blood in us, the Chief always costumed us in tribal apparel for the photographs he took. He said we were "our own Indians." Our mother had a toast-brown complexion that a tourist could maybe squint at and call Indian--and Kiwi, Grandpa Sawtooth, and I could hold our sun. But my sister, Osceola, was born snowy--not a weak chamomile blond but pure frost, with eyes that vibrated somewhere between maroon and violet. Her face was like our mother's face cast forward onto cloudy water. Before we posed for the picture on that billboard, our mother colored her in with drugstore blusher. the Chief made sure she was covered by the shadow of a tree. Kiwi liked to joke that she looked like the doomed sibling you see in those Wild West daguerreotypes, the one who makes you think, Oh God, take the picture quick; that kid is not long for this world.
We know right away that this is not a Native family. They play Indian for their theme park. It makes them money. They benefit by playing Indian. Will we, as I continue to read, find out that Ava is uncomfortable with playing Indian? Is someone going to challenge their playing Indian? I wish Russell had also said that the "tribal apparel" is also fake.
I don't like Kiwi's joke. Would he make a similar joke about other oppressed children in daguerreotypes?
Ava's mother gets ovarian cancer and dies. Grandpa Sawtooth is placed in a home a month before her death. Ava starts doing her mother's act. A new theme park called The World of Darkness opens on the mainland and Swamplandia's visitors drop off dramatically. It is easier to get to (tourists have to take a 40 minute ferry to get to Swamplandia). Ava rarely thinks "dad" --- she usually thinks "the Chief" instead.
Chapter Two: The Advent of the World of Darkness
Without tourists to occupy their time, Ava and her sibs start reading more. Ossie (Ava calls Osceola "Ossie") takes interest in one called The Spiritist's Telegraph about an underworld. Kiwi spends more time studying for the SAT.
We learn that Grandpa's real name is Ernest Schedrach and that he is "the white son of a white coal miner in Ohio" who bought the land Swamplandia is on in 1932. Hilola Bigtree's maiden name was Owens and she, too, was born on the mainland. In one of the Swamplandia buildings is a display area that has family artifacts, including Schedrach's army medallions. "The Chief" works hard to make sure that nothing in the case sullies the manufactured Indian identity of the Bigtree family. He takes the medallions out, and makes sure there is no mention of the family's white roots.
No mention, yet, of when Swamplandia was founded, or, when the family started playing Indian.
The night Osceola turns 16, they have a birthday party for her. Partway through, she announces she's going on a walk but "the Chief" asks her to stay so they can "have a tribal meeting." Osceola leaves anyway and "the Chief" says:
"As you may have noticed," he said in his booming chieftain's voice, "we Bigtrees have a serious enemy. We have a new battle to win."
"Oh my God," said Kiwi. "Dad. This isn't a show. We are all sitting in the same room."
Go, Kiwi! And he called him "Dad" instead of "the chief."
The family discuss the future of Swamplandia, with "the Chief" wanting to make improvements, and, Kiwi wanting to sell it and move to the mainland.
Chapter Three: Osceola K. Bigtree in Love
Osceola starts leaving her bedroom at night. Ava is worried about her and her dates with ghosts. Ava tells Kiwi about it. They tell "the Chief" but he waves it off as a lovesick phase she's going through. Though they still have few if any tourists, "the Chief" continues to wear his costume.
Kind of pathetic, "the Chief" in his costume....
Chapter Four: Ava the Champion
Ava decides she wants to enter the same alligator wrestling competitions her mother entered. Her mother won a national championship in 1971. Ava starts sending inquiries by mail. Her dad continues to wear the headdress all the time:
The fan was blowing at the Chief's headdress, flattening every feather so that they waved in place, like a school of fishes needling into a strong current. Something lunged in me then, receded. A giggle or a sob. A noise. I thought: You look very stupid, Dad.
In chapter 2, Kiwi pushed back on the play Indian activity of "the Chief" and now, Ava does, too. And they're both thinking "dad" when they do it.
Ava remembers asking her mom why she didn't enter more contests, ones where she could "beat the Seminole wrestlers, to show the Miccosukee alligator handlers what we Bigtrees were made of" but her mother avoids answering the question, saying that her job is to be a mother to her children.
According to the Timeline on their website, the Seminole's have been doing alligator wrestling for tourists since the 1920s.
Ava wonders if her mother is happy. She married "the Chief" when she was nineteen and "started her career as an alligator wrestler that same year." She also gave birth that year to Kiwi. Ava remembers Kiwi telling her that their mother had married too young. When Ava repeated that to her mother, she says "Your father and I were sweethearts, you tell me what's too 'too' about that! Without Sam I'd still be on the mainland."
Sam! "The Chief's" name is Sam.
Ava watches a batch of alligators hatch. One is red in color and she starts caring for it secretly, hoping it will save Swamplandia. Towards the end of the chapter, the family goes to visit Grandpa Sawtooth who is rapidly losing his memory. He no longer remembers, for example, "Seth of Seth", which is the alligator he first wrestled. As the family rides the ferry back home, two other passengers stare at "the Chief" with "Seth of Seth" in his lap:
These Loomis men were wealthy, or wealthy to me: they wore belts with shiny buckles, and their khakied laps held fancy red double-decker tackle boxes. They were most likely on their way to play Injun for a weekend at the Red Eagle Key Fishing Camp; they didn't know my father was a Bigtree, and you could see the sneer in their eyes.
On their way to play "Injun"?! Geez...
Chapter Five: Prodigal Kiwi
When they get back to their island, Ava shows Kiwi what she discovered earlier in the day: their mother's wedding dress is missing. They conclude that Ossie has taken it. Ava tells Kiwi about Ossie's nighttime dreams in which Ossie seems possessed. Frustrated with their father, Kiwi takes off. A few days later, "the Chief" tells Ava he is going on one of his extended trips to the mainland. He used to do these month-long business trips while her mother was alive. This is the first one since her death. Ava imagines that he'll raise money to carry out some of his development plans--plans that will make them competitive again. Ava imagines that:
Soon the indigenous Bigtrees would be able to compete with our niche competitor, that exotic invasive species of business, the World of Darkness.
I don't know what to say... What is Russell doing calling the playing-Indian family "indigenous"? From the perspective of those who say they are "Native American" because they were born in America, but that is a snarky thing to do. It is an attempt to discredit American Indians. Same thing here, I think. Russell is intentionally (or not) being dismissive of American Indians. Then, Russell tells us that this family is being invaded by the World of Darkness. These are interesting parallels... Where is she going with this?
Day two with SWAMPLANDIA
Day three with SWAMPLANDIA