Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Day three with Karen Russell's SWAMPLANDIA!

Editor's note: I finished reading Russell's book. I do not recommend it. I do not recommend playing Indian, in fact or fiction. 

Two days ago I started reading Karen Russell's Swamplandia, writing up summaries and my comments for each chapter as I read. Yesterday, I read a few more chapters, summarizing and commenting as I read. Today, I finished the book.

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 Fifteen: Help Arrives, Then Departs
Ava and the Bird Man are out on the water and swamp areas, headed to the Eye of the Needle. Ava tells the Bird Man that there are a lot of Seminole ghosts out there and that her sister is "...named for a Seminole chieftain. The whites killed him with malaria. He died in Fort Moultrie, South Carolina."

Debbie's comments:
Ava calls him a chieftain and I do see that term in some sources but the ones by Native scholars like Theda Purdue use "war chief" instead. He did die of malaria at Fort Moultrie, but before he was there, he, his wives, and his children were held at a prison in Saint Augustine. Another awful detail: Purdue writes that he was buried headless because an Army doctor "made off with his head as a trophy" (page 190, The Columbia Guide to American Indians of the Southeast by Theda Purdue and Michael D. Green). In The Native Peoples of North America: A History, Volume 1, Bruce E. Johansen writes that the doctor was a surgeon named Frederick Weedon, and that he kept Osceola's head in a medical museum until it was destroyed in a fire in 1866.  If interested, you can read testimony of three military officers who verified that Weedon had the head. Will we find out WHY "the Chief" and his wife chose that name for their daughter?! 

Ava continues:

After the Indian Removal Act was passed in 1830, the Seminole people were hunted like animals. They built the palm-thatched chickees for use as temporary shelters, hiding places. President Jackson sent a letter to the Seminoles that we reproduced in our museum, the last line of which reads:
"But should you listen to the bad birds that are always flying about you, and refuse to remove, I have directed the commanding officer to remove you by force."

She provides more history, and then says:

My sister was named for the Seminoles' famous warrior and freedom fighter, War Chief Osceola, who, legend has it, said, at a time when General Jessup was upon them, and all seemed lost:
"If the Great Spirit will show me how, I will make the white man red with blood; and then blacken him in the sun and rain... and the buzzard live upon his flesh."
Debbie's comments:

Jackson's statement is in a letter. You can read it here in the Library of Congress publication. Scroll down and read details about how the removal was to be carried out. The only place I'm able to locate the second excerpt (Osceola's words) is in "Outing Magazine" which was a sports magazine published in the late 1800 and early 1900s. Russell precedes that excerpt with "legend has it" which gives her the space to attribute those words to him. This reminds me of Gina Capaldi's picture book biography of Carlos Montezuma. She went overboard, putting words into his mouth. Her disclaimer is less visible than a passage preceded with "legend has it."

Ava goes on:

These Seminoles, the "real" Indians that the chief envied in a filial and loving way, were in fact the descendants of many displaced tribes from the Creek Confederacy. This swamp was not their ancestral home either, not by any stretch--they had been pushed further and further into the swamp by President Jackson's Tennessee boys and a company of scarecrows from Atlanta, a militia that was starved and half-crazed. We Bigtrees were an "indigenous species" of swamp dweller, according to the Chief and our catalogs, but it turned out that every human in the Ten Thousand Islands was a recent arrival. 

Debbie's comments:

Why does Russell have "real" in quotation marks, followed by information that says the Seminoles are descendants of displaced tribes? She is also collapsing a lot of history into a too-small period, and then she says her family and the Indians of the area are all the same. That's unsettling! It is a bold attack on the sovereignty of the tribes who were there!

Ava talks a bit about the Calusa's and then says: was not until the late 1800s that our swamp was recolonized by freed slaves and by fugitive Indians and, decades later, by the shocked, drenched white pioneers shaking out wet deeds, true sitting ducks, the patsies of the land barons who had sold these gullible snowbirds farms that were six feet underwater. And then by "eccentrics" like the Bird Man and my parents. 

Debbie's comments:

That suggests that there was nobody there at all between 1830 when the Removal Act was passed and the late 1800s. I suppose it depends on what "recolonized" means.  The Seminole tribe says they never left:
Historians estimate there may have been only a few hundred unconquered Seminole men, women and children left - all hiding in the swamps and Everglades of South Florida. No chicanery, no offer of cattle, land, liquor or God, nothing could lure the last few from their perches of ambush deep in the wilderness. The U.S. declared the war ended - though no peace treaty was ever signed - and gave up.

The Florida survivors comprised at least two main factions: Maskoki speakers who lived near Lake Okeechobee and those who spoke the linguistically-related Hitchiti tongue (also called Miccosukee or Seminole) and lived to the south. In the remote environs of such uncharted Florida wilderness, the Seminoles remained, living in small traditional camps of cypress frame/palmetto-thatch chickees, isolated from Florida society and the rest of the world until well into the 20th century . . . long after most tribes had experienced assimilation, religious conversion and cultural annihilation.

The descendants of these last few Indian resistors are the members of today's Seminole Tribe of Florida, the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida and the unaffiliated Independent or Traditional Seminoles.

Among the "white pioneers" Ava references decades later is her grandfather (remember, he purchased that land in 1930). 

The Bird Man asks Ava if her sister is like "the war chief Osceola" to which Ava says "Oh, no! She wears barrettes and stuff. She's a real girl-girl. She's not like us."

Debbie's comments:

Not like us... which means... What? What does it mean?

As they continue towards the Eye of the Needle, Ava wonders if Ossie has already made it home and found her note:

I pictured Ossie sitting Indian style on the burgundy sofa in her polka-dotted pajamas.

Debbie's comments:

Sitting "Indian style"?! We know what that means---with legs crossed. If this time period is 1980, then, Ava thinking "Indian style" makes sense. In recent years, use of that term has diminished as teachers become more aware of stereotyping. But, did it need to be in here at all? What if the sentence was "I pictured Ossie sitting on the burgundy soft in her polka-dotted pajamas." Does that take away from anything? Maybe Russell is trying to get us to see Ava as a product of her time. There are definitely plenty of people who understand the mistreatment of American Indians in historical contexts and still play Indian at Halloween or birthday parties, or, at sports events where a mascot is a stereotyped Indian.

Ava and the Bird Man talk a lot as they row/walk to the Eye of the Needle. He asks her if she knows about a bridge built in the 1920s. Ava nodded, told him about her grandfathers photos of African American bodies after the Labor Day hurricane of 1935. He took these photos to document something that official records did not. She goes on:
Most mainlanders hear "homeschooled" and they get the wrong impression. There were many deficits in our swamp education, but Grandpa Sawtooth, to his credit, taught us the names of whole townships that had been forgotten underwater. Black pioneers, Creek Indians, moonshiners, women, "disappeared" boy soldiers who deserted their army camps. From Grandpa we learned how to peer beneath the sea-glare of the "official, historical" Florida records we found in books. "Prejudice," as defined by Sawtooth Bigtree, was a kind of prehistoric arithmetic--a "damn fool math"--in which some people counted and others did not. It means white names on white headstones in the big cemetery on Cypress Point, and black and brown bodies buried in swamp water.
She calls her grandpa a true historian who is a true egalitarian:
Tragedies, too, struck blindly and you had to count everyone. Grandpa taught us more than any LCPS Teach Your Child ...! book about Florida hurricanes, Florida wars. From his stories we learned as children how to fire our astonishment at death into a bright outrage.
Debbie's comments:

Maybe it is grandpa's teaching that is at the root of Kiwi and Ava's frustration with their father for his persistence in playing Indian. 

Towards the end of the chapter, they run into Whip Jeters, a park ranger who has known Ava and her family for a long time. He's surprised to find her with the Bird Man, but Ava and the Bird Man convince Whip that they're cousins.

Chapter Sixteen: Kiwi Bigtree, World Hero

Recall that in chapter fourteen, Kiwi rescued (I should note that the girl he rescued wasn't really drowning; she was fooling around) a girl at the World of Darkness pool where he is working as a lifeguard.  In this chapter, the media swarms on the story, portraying him as a hero. He is interviewed and photographed or the newspaper:
He hadn't allowed himself to be photographed for the Swamplandia! brochures for years; in the most recent one he was fourteen, wearing his sister Osceola's red ribbon around his forehead and furious about it, a feather sticking up behind his head like a middle finger.
Debbie's comment:

This is some of the frustration that I mentioned earlier.

Kiwi realizes that this rescue story could help Swamplandia! and starts talking about it to the reporter, telling her that he belongs to the "Bigtree tribe of Swamplandia" and referring to the billboard of his father wearing a headdress. The reporter doesn't know what he's talking about but he goes on talking about Swamplandia hoping some of the information will make it into the newspaper. When he sees the paper the next day, he is disappointed that most of the article is about the girl, and that it says nothing about Swamplandia.

Chapter Seventeen: Ava's Eclipse
The niggling doubts Ava has been feeling are full blown by the end of this chapter. She and the Bird Man have found and passed the Eye of the Needle and pass by islands with people on them. Ava calls out, thinking Ossie is there, and the Bird Man slaps her.  She realizes she doesn't know who he is and that she was wrong to trust him. At one point she thinks of her dad, drunk on the couch, wearing his feathered headdress.

Debbie's comment:

I don't remember prior references to her father being drunk. I'm not making an association between the drunken Indian stereotype here, and I don't think Russell is either. Ava's thought makes me feel sad for her.

Chapter Eighteen: Kiwi Rolls the Dice
Kiwi goes to a Seminole-owned casino with two friend/co-workers. There is a beauty pageant taking place. Kiwi realizes that the pageant MC is his dad. He puts the money he has with him in an envelope and hands it to a dealer, asking her to give it to his dad. She tells Kiwi to take the money himself, that the man, Sammie, is a nice guy who they all love. Kiwi takes off, conflicted over what he's realizing. All these years, he believed his dad went on periodic month long trips to the mainland to meet with investors, but, it looks like those business trips were just periods when he works at jobs like this one.

Chapter Nineteen: The Silently Screaming World
The chapter opens with Ava realizing that the Bird Man is having sex with her. She doesn't struggle but shortly after that, she runs away. They've been gone from Swamplandia! two days. She spends a night alone huddled in the dark and the next morning gathers her thoughts and gets her bearings. She starts out for higher land.

Chapter Twenty: Out to Sea
Kiwi goes to visit his grandfather at the retirement home, hoping his grandfather can fill him in and affirm his suspicions about his dad.  But, his grandfather's mind is gone and they end up fighting. Kiwi goes back to his room at the World of Darkness and finds that his friend/co-workers have a new poster for him. They thought the poster Kiwi has of his mother is there for Kiwi to use when masturbating. In replacing it, they've torn it in half. They don't know that is his mother.

Chapter Twenty-One: Mama Weeds
Ava continues her journey through the swamps. She comes to a cabin with a clothesline on which are hung items she recognizes as Ossie's favorite shirt and Louis's jacket...  She thinks the woman who appears is a ghost named Mama Weeds. The woman is wearing a dress that Ava thinks once belonged to her mother. She tries to tear it off the woman, and then, she takes off again. She's got a piece of the dress in her hand and is wearing the jacket.

Debbie's comment:

The last chapters of this story are just as heavy and dark as they can be. I'm not at all sure that Ava is alive anymore... 

Chapter Twenty-Two: Kiwi Takes to the Skies
After rescuing the girl, Kiwi was promoted again, to pilot of an in-the-works World of Darkness airplane ride. In this chapter, he is able to fly a plane. While up, he sees a woman waving frantically at the plane. He decides to land (his instructor lets him try it), which he does successfully. He finds the barge and Ossie. She tells him that Louis Thanksgiving left her at the alter. The chapter closes with her asking about Ava.

Chapter Twenty-Three: The End Begins
The Bird Man finds Ava. She dives into an alligator pond, is bit on the leg, wrestles the alligator, and gets away from it. She swims through a tunnel and the Bird Man doesn't find her again. She hears the crackle of a park ranger's radio and is rescued. The ranger asks if she's related to Osceola Bigtree, who has also just been rescued. Ava, Ossie, and Kiwi are reunited and go to "the Chief's" hotel room. The family is reunited. They stay on the mainland. Ossie is on medication. Ava doesn't tell anyone about the Bird Man or what happened to her. The last paragraph ends with:
I think the Chief was right about one thing: the show really must go on. Our Seths are still thrashing inside us in an endless loop. I like to think our family is winning. But my brother and my sister and I rarely talk about it anymore--that would be as pointless as making a telephone call to say, "Kiwi, are you there? Listen: my blood is circulating" or, "Howdy, Ossie, it's today, are you breathing?" We used to have this cardboard clock on Swamplandia! and you could move the tiny red hands to whatever time you wanted, NEXT SHOW AT __:__ O'CLOCK.

Debbie's comments:

That's it. End of the story.  After I've had some time to think about the story, I'll write up those thoughts. In the meantime, I invite your thoughts and comments, either through the comments option below, or through the "Contact AICL" button in the bar at the top of the page. You can also write to me directly at


Ali B said...

I read Swamplandia. I liked it right up to the rape. I didn't want one more thing to happen to this poor girl. It so quickly changed the tone and direction of the story. I just so didn't want Ava to be let down by one more person. To be raped by the Birdman seemed like the most soul-sucking thing that could happen to this great kid who had already lost and survived so much.

Anonymous said...

I wish in yoru noes you had not termed the rape tha Ava experienced as sex. She describes it as sex and later as something that the Bird Man and she did together but that appears to be because she is a child who does not realize that it was an attack and a crime. I wish also that you acknowledged that the Bird Man's intentions, post-rape, was murder. We, the readers, know this by the fact that from the moment he took her away from Swamplandia! he was looking around for potential witnesses. When she cried for help, he tells her "are you trying to get yourself killed?" At that point, even poor naive Ava knows that her murder is on his mind.

Anonymous said...

Regarding sitting "Indian style," the answer is yes, Russell should have used this description because it's embedded in the character, and in the time. It makes the character convincing, not just in the way that she is sitting, but how she sees the world around her. To shy away from this for fear of appearing racist, naive or prejudice is, in my mind, a worser crime. I mean, the whole family has been impersonating being Native American for generations, it's naive cultural appropriation with economic benefits, which has been going on ever since white people came to the Americas. If writers shy away from using it in their work, then the book will not only suck, but the conversation will end before it even gets started.

-Karin Rosman

Anonymous said...

I feel that you think the author is biased against Native Americans in her book. Truth is, she's just trying to show characterization, and your ruining the book with your comments, just leave the author alone. She never meant it how you try to make it look.

Debbie Reese said...

I don't think she's biased against American Indians. She might be ignorant, but I'd love to read interviews with her wherein she says why she chose that as the theme for the park.

Debbie Reese said...


I'm sorry for this very late reply to your comment. Do you think it was not possible for Russell to write this story without the stereotypical Native content? That it HAD to be in the book in order for it to work?