The Weather

Discussion Questions: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

1. Now that you’ve read the novel, go back and reread the epigraph [“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice. “I only wish that I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!” — Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass]. Why do you think Russell chose this quote?

I think the quote references the entire Bigtree clan’s capacity for fantasy in their daily lives. The owners of Swamplandia!, a reptilian theme park, are going up against a corporate giant in their new competitor the World of Darkness, and Hilola Bigtree, Swamplandia!’s matriarch and alligator wrestler extraordinaire, has died of cancer.

To deal with their adversity, Chief has Carnival Darwinism, a far-fetched plan to save Swamplandia!. Ossie has ghosts, which serve as an escape from her family’s insular life in the park. Kiwi has an idea for saving Swamplandia! by going to work for their competitors as a seventeen-year-old with no real-world experience. Ava is the most down-to-earth character, and the main part of the story follows her down her own rabbit hole as the family abandons her to follow their own fantasies.

2. Some of these characters first appeared in the story “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” in Russell’s collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Have you read that story? How does it compare to the novel?

Yes, I have. It was shorter.

(Alternate answer: It made Miller’s point about fantasy and real life more efficiently, and it did so without rousing the conflicted feelings that I experienced while reading the book, where I wanted to like Ava more.)

3. “‘Tradition is as important, kids,’ Chief Bigtree liked to say, ‘as promotional materials are expensive.’” (page 6) Did the Chief show this in his actions? Which of the Bigtree tribe members paid the most respect to tradition?

The Chief will do anything to keep his traditions alive, even if it means, on some level, completely selling out by working as an MC at the mainland casino. Kiwi is more honest. He essentially follows the same path of the Chief by going to work for the competition, but at least he mostly admits what he is doing.

Ossie follows the tradition of the Bigtree clan’s eccentricities, but takes them in her own direction—she introduces her own mysticism of the great beyond. It allows her to escape and be her own person. Ossie lacks the gumption to leave Swamplandia! by herself. With her ghosts, she is able to leave the park and abandon Ava to find the underworld.

Ava takes all the myths that her family creates and swallows them whole. She believes Swamplandia! can be saved, she believes in Ossie’s ghosts, she believes even in the Bird Man. All these myths put her in danger when she goes to track down Ossie with the Bird Man. And I think this was the turning point for me and Swamplandia!. Stories and tradition, in my own mythology, should support us, and should help us. Our family should too. In this book, the dreams of the family are dangerous—leaving Ava alone, and allowing her to take up with the Bird Man.

At the World of Darkness, Kiwi has turned his back on tradition, and is working against Swamplandia!. And while the corporate entity tries to suck his soul dry, he ends up becoming a success, thanks to the World of Darkness family. Is Russell saying we should trust corporations more? It seems pretty counterintuitive, but maybe she is.

The traditions of the family relate to the tourists they entertain. Without the tourists, the family begins to break apart. Some become sellouts, others stay dreamers. Which is better? Plot-wise, it seems that Russell comes down on the side of the sellouts—Chief and Kiwi make progress toward their goals. While Ava and Ossie, who stick to the swamp, both almost die. But tonally, it seems like she is in the eccentrics’ camp. In the end, I was unsure of Russel’s loyalties.

4. How did Chief’s myth-making affect his children? How might things have been different if he’d been more truthful?

I imagine the family’s outcome would be similar, with the entire family taking up mainland lives, but the path would not be worthy of a novel. There would be no adventure where the kids strike out on their own. The family would be safer, but there would be less adversity, and therefore less character building, less tension, less imagination. How are kids supposed to grow up if you don’t let them wander off into the swamp with strange men?

5. On page 36, Chief introduces his theory of Carnival Darwinism, which he thought would save Swamplandia! How might it have been successful? Why wasn’t it?

I hate to be cynical, but it was never going to be successful. Swamplandia! is the old story of corporate America coming in to shut down Mom and Pop. And since Mom—Swamplandia!’s main attraction, through her personality and her Greco-reptilian wrestling—has passed on, it is a losing battle against a literal leviathan. His idea of Darwinism is basically putting more money into the park, into rides, attractions, and entertainment. I mean, I guess I could write a business plan with strategies for tracking down investors and securing funding, but I don’t think that’s the type of discussion this question is aiming for.

6. Where else does the notion of evolution come into play?

Here’s how Russell puts it: “THE ALLIGATOR IS AN ANACHRONISM THAT CAN EAT YOU!”

The special thing about a gator is that it has not changed in hundreds of thousands of years. Likewise, the family’s show is the same show that has been presented daily for years and years. Carnival Darwinism is Chief’s idea to change all that. To accelerate the change and become greater than what they were. But the swamp and the park cannot sustain such a change, and his plan fails.

7. Belief—in Carnival Darwinism, in ghosts—plays a large role in the novel. What prompts Ossie’s beliefs? Ava’s? Where is the turning point in their belief systems?

Ossie’s beliefs center on her loneliness and her wish for companionship. She is constantly looking outside her family for people who can fill her emptiness.

Ava’s belief system is not her own, but an amalgam of the beliefs at work in her family. She picks up ideas about the swamp from her parents, the possibility of saving Swamplandia! from her father and brother, and the existence of the underworld from her sister. This capacity for belief leaves her vulnerable to the influences that swirl around her.

8. What does Ava’s red alligator represent? And the melaleuca trees?

This improbable animal that she finds and keeps a secret from the rest of her family might be interpreted as Ava’s own innocence. She keeps it protected from the outside world by believing that Swamplandia! can be saved, that Ossie is in a relationship with a ghost, that Bird Man is trying to help her. When she throws the red seth at the Bird Man, she is losing her innocence.

As for the melaleuca trees, I view them as another sign of “progress” destroying the old ways. Filling the swamp with this invasive species didn’t actually bring about any benefit, but instead set in motion an environmental disaster that could have been avoided if those living in the swamp had just been happy with what they had. This is the main theme in the book.

9. There are biblical references throughout the book, especially in the World of Darkness sections. Why does Russell include them?

The World of Darkness represents mainstream religion and Western thought. The rules of corporate America are dominant, no matter how unfair those rules may be. Swamplandia! represents the paganism of the untouched New World, before it was corrupted.

10. How do Kiwi’s actions affect his family? What do we learn via his sojourn on the mainland?

He saves his sister, so there’s that. He also is able to make amends with his father so that, when Ossie and Ava are found, they’re able to come back together as a family. From his trip, we find that the mainland is a backward place with questionable values. But the mainland allows him to be successful and change. By diving into the heart of a corporate beast, he learns how to socialize, how to work, becomes a pilot. Meanwhile, in the swamp, nothing has changed.

11. On page 183, the Bird Man tells Ava, “Nobody can get to hell without assistance, kid.” How does this compare to the quote from Dante that opens the chapter? What does it tell us about his character?

Dante’s quote [“Therefore, for your sake, I think it wise you follow me: I will be your guide  …”] has Virgil conveying a sense of protection, of helping. Not so with the Bird Man. Ava sees Bird Man’s offer to help her find the underworld and Ossie as evidence that he will be her guide, but that’s not what Bird Man means. There are many ways to get to hell and often you can get there without leaving the comfort of your own home. The Bird Man is interested in the adventure that Ava represents, not helping her achieve her goal.

12. The three Bigtree children are innocent for their ages. Which one matures the most over the course of the novel?

While Ava and Ossie endure much more harrowing circumstances, it’s unclear how much their experiences change them. Ossie gives up the ghost, and decides to become more rooted in reality. Ava fends for herself and escapes the Bird Man. But these experiences, while certainly trying and life-threatening, are so surreal and removed from mainland reality that it’s difficult for them to impart mainland, maturity-inducing wisdom.

Kiwi, however, has begun to see how the world, and the World, work. He has taken steps to assimilate himself, and help himself. The questions about this book are provocative. I’m usually much more of dreamer, rooting for the quirky kid, as opposed to the pragmatic sellout. But Swamplandia! gets me to root for the sellout, and raises the question about whether or not maturation must be a form of selling out itself, if only of selling out innocence.

13. When Ava said “I love you” to the Bird Man on page 245, what did you expect to happen as a result?

As a born optimist, I hoped this line would encourage some bonding between the two of them, and keep Bird Man in his role as guardian. Unfortunately, Ava’s warmth enabled him to take advantage of her, though that may’ve been his plan all along.

14. On page 247, Ava recites a credo: “I believe the Bird Man knows a passage to the underworld. I believe that I am brave enough to do this. I have faith that we are going to rescue Ossie.” Was she right about any of this?

No. Well, I guess she was brave enough. But nothing else.

15. Did the Bird Man believe in the underworld, or did he have an ulterior motive all along?

I’m not sure if the Bird Man had an ulterior motive the whole time, but he certainly did not seem to believe in the underworld. He saw Ava as something to occupy his time and invention. As Ava believed they were moving closer to finding her sister, the Bird Man saw it as a game to play. What would happen next? What would this weird girl do? Ava creates potentialities that the Bird Man does not have access to.

16. How does Kiwi’s use of language change during the novel? What does it reflect?

Like anyone exposed to a new culture, he begins to pick up the vernacular of mainland youth. Part of it is immersion, part of it assimilation. He drops his “what-have-you”s and his “ostensibly”s, and picks up “fuck” and “shit.” This new language protects him and camouflages him from his outsider status.

17. What is the significance of the Mama Weeds passage? What do we learn from it?

This is Ava’s fantasy intersecting with the real world. Whether or not these were truly Ossie’s clothes is not supernatural—she was found nearby. The fact that she assigns the role of Mama Weeds to this strong washer woman shows us the power her fantasies still have over her. She mentions in that passage that she had never believed in the idea of Mama Weeds before, but she has been sucked down deep into the mire by her interaction with the Bird Man and her trip to the underworld, as well as her mother’s death.

18. Why doesn’t Ava ever tell anyone what the Bird Man did?

It seems to me it is the oft-told tale of the victim feeling responsible for the attack. She feels like she may have caused it by telling him she loved him, touching his knee, and just generally being an affectionate girl. As she trudges out of the swamp, she is still debating whether or not she should go back to him. The event is not as clearly black and white in her mind as it is in mine.

Read more from the Discussion Questions series. 

Bick McSwiney is a teacher in Nigeria.