Let’s start off with the good. Russell has a very engaging style that makes the reader fill in the blanks. One of the cool things people have said about this novel is that depending on the mindset of the reader, it can be interpreted or classified many different ways. There’s mysticism, poverty, and war themes, but in the end, everything is ambiguous enough to let you draw your own conclusions about the subject matter. I found this amazing. Russell managed to tie up the plot and leave questions hanging in the air. Oh, and Karen Russell is one of the best writers I’ve ever read. She handles difficult and tragic topics tactfully. Well, some of them.
I had a huge problem with her use of Natives in the storyline.
For starters, the Bigtree family lives on a secluded island, and the kids have been raised thinking of their family as a “tribe.” The father even wears a traditional headdress. The kids call him “Chief.” Now, obviously these are very offensive things. The Bigtrees are not Native and will never be; they are appropriating cultural aspects that are not theirs. I wouldn’t have a problem with this “character flaw” of blatant racism if Russell had used it as a negative example, but she never ties it up that way. While I was reading, I kept waiting for her to add a piece in that criticizes the Bigtrees’ mindset, but she does not. The problem with this is the ignorance in America right now on the subject of appropriation. Many people won’t know that the Bigtrees have racism deeply embedded in their roots because they cannot recognize it as such. That’s why I think Russell should have taken more responsibility in her writing to open a dialogue on the subject, especially for someone who apparently went on school field trips to a local rez.
Russell digs her whole even deeper when she mentions that the kids had learned Indian history of the area quite extensively. Ava, the youngest, even knew a few local tribe names. Apparently they didn’t learn much about tradition though, because neither Kiwi or Ava realize their family’s errors when they leave home. They call their father “Chief” until the end.
So all in all, this book has me conflicted. Russell does some really great writing in Swamplandia, and I don’t want to discredit that. If she would have developed the Native storyline to its full potential, this book would have blown me away. I probably would have given it five stars on goodreads if that were the case. It hurts to know that this book was a finalist for the Pulitzer the year it came out. I’m wondering – do other people see nuances that I’m not picking up here?
Oh, and here are some chapter by chapter critiques from a Native woman’s blog. Gotta have more than one opinion than the white girl’s.