I have written here before about how personal dislike or ambivalence about a book can color a discussion, so I was wary about approaching my group’s discussion of Karen Russell’s quirky debut, Swamplandia! Two book group members had already told me privately that they could not finish the book–one said she didn’t care about the characters and the other called it “adolescent”–so I was prepared for the worst.
But no one threw the book at me and no one launched into a diatribe about the book. I was so thrilled and impressed with my group because everyone engaged with substantive feedback and examples. As we went around the table, analyzing characters and themes and story angles, I silently chanted to myself: “Yay, book group! You guys are awesome!”
Swamplandia! is narrated by 13-year-old Ava Bigtree, a girl who has grown up in an Everglades theme park. Ava’s mom was once the main attraction–an alligator wrestler who dove into a pool of alligators amidst a stand of tourists ready to see her risk life and limb–until cancer’s more fatal maws get a hold of her. Ava, her father, the Chief, her brother Kiwi and sister Osceola are left in their strange little outpost that founders in the wake of Hilola Bigtree’s untimely departure.
The group talked about how odd runs rampant in Florida anyway, especially in an area as fecund as the Everglades, so readers gave Russell a little leeway in the general quirky nature of the story and characters. We also spent some time talking about its nomination for a Pulitzer in a year when no fiction award was granted and how there is an HBO series in the works.
I took time to go around the table to ask everyone their final verdict. Most everyone spoke about Russell’s skills with language and how they paused over certain passages and turns of phrase. But there was a general wonderment about whether one needs to be relentlessly quirky to get noticed or make a splash these days in the literary world. Would Russell be able to break out of this or not? Overall, the group felt they could not recommend this book to many other people and yet we had a wonderful discussion. I reflected on how discussion skills grow over time within a group and how a flawed, striving debut like Swamplandia! can have hidden depths.