Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Day Two with 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. 

Yesterday I started reading Karen Russell's Swamplandia, writing up summaries and my comments for each chapter as I read. I'm picking it up again today. Before reading below, go read Day One with Russell's Swamplandia where I wrote about chapters one thru five.

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 Six: Kiwi's Exile in the World of Darkness

Kiwi takes a job at the World of Darkness, which is the reason tourists have stopped going to Swamplandia. There, he meets some unusual people like the oblivious character, Leonard Harlblower. Kiwi thinks:
Even Chief Bigtree--an "indigenous swamp dweller" who was actually a white guy descended from a coal miner in small-town Ohio, a man who sat on lizards in a fathered headdress--even the Chief seemed like a genius of self-awareness next to this kid Leonard.
Debbie's comments:

In chapter six, Russell used "indigenous" but without quotation marks. Here, she uses them. Is this inconsistency in her writing, or is it a way for the different characters to show that self-awareness?

Chapter Seven: The Dredge Appears
With "the Chief" gone, Ava and Ossie take care of Swamplandia and their property. This includes cutting down melaleuca, an invasive tree:
Ossie was cutting the saplings down, and I was painting herbicide onto the stumps. We were tree warriors, I told Ossie. We had come to the Last Ditch for a massacre.

"This is a pretty boring massacre," said my sister. "When is lunch?"

Debbie's comments:

Playing savage Indians now?! Russell's writing has a good bit of humor in it, but this particular stereotype (bloodthirsty savage massacring Indian) is not in the least bit amusing. 

It is while they are out cutting down the saplings that Ava and Ossie find an old dredge. Ossie starts trying to communicate with its ghosts. She takes up with one in particular, named Louis Thanksgiving.

Chapter Eight: Kiwi's Debt Increases
Payday finally arrives and Kiwi finds out that things he thought were free (his uniform, food he eats while at work, and a room he stays in at the theme park) are not free. Instead of a check, he is given a bill.

Chapter Nine: The Dredgeman's Revelation
Ossie is in love with Louis, calling him her boyfriend. Ossie tells Ava his life story, from birth to death. He had friends in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC): "calm men, family men, bachelors, ex-preachers, hellions, white men, black men, the children of Indians and freed slaves"

Debbie's comments:

The CCC was a government work relief program that ran from 1933 to 1942.  Grandpa Sawtooth bought the island that would eventually have Swamplandia on it in 1932. That means the barge and work being done by its crew was done while he was there. I don't know if that matters later on in the story or not. 

I'm not sure that the CCC was integrated in a way that would have made it possible for Louis to work with black men, or with "children of Indians and freed slaves." I'm wondering why Russell used "children of Indians and freed slaves" instead of whatever word they were called in the 1930s.  I'm not sure that Louis would have worked alongside anyone who wasn't white. For the most part, the CCC wasn't integrated.

From his work on the CCC, Louis went to work on the dredge, but his friends chose not to go:
...the lone Indian on the crew, Euphon Tigertail, who had survived subhuman conditions while working on the Panama Canal, decided that he couldn't work in the swamp any longer. He'd been undone by miniscule foes, the chizzywinks, and the deer flies. "You sure you want to be a dredgeman for this outfit, Lou?" Euphon had whispered, both of them staring at the hulk of the dredge. 
Debbie's comments:
Hmmm...  I think this is the first time in the book that Russell provides us with words spoken by a Native character. Cool that it isn't stilted Indian-speak ("Um, that right, Kemosabe")!

Studying maps they found on the dredge, Ossie tells Ava that Louis has told her about a door to the underworld. Ava recognizes it as an Indian landmark called Eye of the Needle that is a day's hourney by airboat from their island. They had not been there, but their grandfather had:
Grandpa Sawtooth took a photograph of the Eye of the Needle passageway during his rambles in the forties: a gray channel cut between two twenty-acre islands made entirely of shells. These islands looked like twin boulders to me, or like one island that lived net to its echo. Two intricate skulls rising out of the river. They are hundreds or maybe even thousands of years old--the Calusa Indians constructed the mounds out of clay and every kind of local shell: oysters and conchs and whelks. The Calusa Indians were well established in our swamp when Ponce de Leon arrived in 1513, and they probably hugged the shoreline of Florida for hundreds of years before the European contact; by the late 1700s their tribe had disappeared, undone by Spanish warfare and enslavement, and by microbes: smallpox and measles. The Calusa shell mounds, these seashell archipelagos, had outlasted their architects by at least five hundred years. You can find them scattered throughout the Ten Thousand Islands; visitors will drag their kayaks up a shell mound's glittery shoes and picnic there. On the Gulf side a 150-acre shell mound supports a modern township. But the Eye of the Needle was a special landmark, known only to locals, and very remote.

Debbie's comments:

This is a history lesson! In a Google Everything search, the first hit was a social studies page that has much of the information Russell shares. Thankfully, Russell does not replicate the bias on that page (it presents the Calusa's as the aggressors in conflicts with the Spanish). A Google Videos search turned up an interesting documentary that dates one of the layers in a particular dig at 2000 years old. Ava, Ossie, and Kiwi are homeschooled but don't really study. In one place in the book, they worry at what grade level they'd be placed if they went to public school. That worry suggests the kids are not very well educated, so, the idea that Ava would know all this about the Calusa Indians kind of doesn't work.

On the third weekend without their father, Gus (he runs the ferry) comes to check on them. He finds Ava coloring, using "our Bigtree tribal colors: Indian red and heron blue."

Debbie's comments:
I'm curious about the time period for this story. Due to a way-cool effort by teachers, that "Indian red" crayon was retired in 1999 in response to teachers who felt that children wrongly perceived that color was intended to represent the skin color of American Indians. because children were using it on coloring sheets when they were coloring Indians. Crayola responded and changed the name to Chestnut. Below is a screenshot of the relevant part of their webpage. If the time setting for Swamplandia! is pre-1999, then it makes sense that the crayon is in the box that Ava is using. If it is post-1999, she could be using an old box. So--it is plausible and not necessarily a critique. More than anything, I suppose, I'm seizing Russell's use of "Indian red" as a teachable moment.  (In chapter nine, Ava watches the news and learns of the famine in Uganda. That was 1980, and again, in 2011.)

A few days later, Gus arrives with a letter for Ava. This one is from the Secretary to the President at the University of Loomis. It reads:
Thank you for your inquiry. I have done some research on your behalf; unfortunately no such Commission or Committee or alligator-wrestling competition has ever existed. You might visit the Miccosukee Indian Reservation to watch a live alligator show.
Ava tears the letter into bits.
Debbie's comment:
Hmm... Are we going to find out that the trophy is a fake? Part of the hype for the park?

The chapter ends with Ossie going into the dredge again to see Louis. Ava meets and befriends the Bird Man (he's a guy who travels around driving birds away from places they aren't wanted). When Ava returns there the next morning, the dredge is gone.

Chapter Ten: Kiwi Climbs the Ladder
Back at the World of Darkness theme park, Kiwi gets a new job as a life guard.

Chapter Eleven: Ava Goes to the Underworld
In a panic, Ava tells the Bird Man about Ossie and the missing dredge. Reluctantly, she also tells him about Louis, the ghost boyfriend. To her surprise, he believes in ghosts and knows where the Eye of the Needle is. He agrees to help Ava find Ossie.

Chapter Twelve: Kiwi Goes to Night School
Kiwi goes to the local community college to begin a GED class. When it is his turn, he introduces himself and tells his classmates he needs to help his dad get out of debt and wants to go to college. Students immediately start ridiculing him, calling him "white boy." He wishes he could tell them about the island:
...about Chief Bigtree's "Indian" lineage; how as a kid they'd put makeup and beads on him, festooned him with spoonbill feathers and reptilian claws; how at fourteen he'd declared: "I'm a Not-Bigtree. A Not-Indian. A Not-Seminole. A Not-Miccosukee." This category "white" gave him a whistling fear, a feeling not unlike agoraphobia.
Debbie's comments:

Recall in chapter two, Kiwi is frustrated when his dad tries to talk to them in a booming "chieftain" voice? Here, we learn that Kiwi didn't like playing Indian. Seems like he thought he had no culture, and being called white, or realizing that his identity is being ridiculed, scares him. 

Chapter Thirteen: Welcome to Stiltsville
Ava and the Bird Man stop at an abandoned village on stilts (Stiltsville) for the night.

Chapter Fourteen: The Drowning Chain
The drowning chain is a net used to rescue swimmers. At the end of the chapter, Kiwi (not using the drowning chain) rescues and revives a girl. Crowds gather round and take photos of him.

That's it for Day 2 of Swamplandia!


kittens not kids said...

Debbie, I'm reading this with great interest; I've only heard OF Swamplandia!, nothing about it (I honestly knew nothing at all about its plot until reading your posts).

I love this format - the chapter-by-chapter summary and brief exegesis. It would be amazing to have a whole series or sets of these kinds of readings (not only by you! that would be a massive undertaking), but I can imagine a series that does, say, feminist readings, queer readings, and so on.

On the CCC: by total chance, a few years back, I happened to catch the last 30-40 minutes of a documentary about the CCC, and I would swear that at least some of the groups were integrated. I remember discussions about the Mexican (and/or Black) men in a particular group, and the ways they did or did not experience racism.

At any rate: I'm loving these posts, and I'm looking forward to more!

Debbie Reese said...


I've done a few of them before. They take a lot of work but it is one way that I can demonstrate my method of reading a book, focusing on the Native content.

From what I've read about the CCC (while also reading SWAMPLANDIA!), the early year or two of CCC were integrated but people complained and the government moved to establish segregated units. There was one for African Americans, and another for American Indians. The latter were not moving around the country as was the case with the other units. For the most part, they stayed on their reservations and did infrastructure work that was necessary there.