"The yellow inside you that makes you want to live:" On Karen Russell's Swamplandia!

Warning: This review contains spoilers

It's been said that we create stories in order to live but it may be just as true that we create stories to cope with death. In Ancient Greece, Orpheus descended to the Underworld to save his wife Eurydice who was killed by a snake bite. He was granted the ability to take her away from the Underworld but on one condition: He could not look back at her as they were leaving. Orpheus could not abide by this rule. He looked back and instantly Eurydice was reclaimed by the Underworld. The message seems clear: The dead cannot be resurrected, no matter how much we may long for it.

I was reminded of the tragic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice as I read Karen Russell's Swamplandia!, a magical realist novel about a family fractured by grief. Swamplandia! is an alligator park on an island off the coast of Florida run by the Bigtree Family. There's the alligator-wrestling matriarch, Hilola, the father, Chief, and three children, Kiwi, Osceola, and the youngest, 13-year-old Ava who narrates the story. When Hilola Bigtree dies, the family scatters in wildly different directions. Chief leaves mysteriously for a supposed business trip; Kiwi heads to the mainland for a job to help save their alligator park that is under threat of shutting down now that its main attraction has passed way; Osceola (Ossie) delves into the spirit world of the occult, falling in love with ghosts; and Ava is left on her own, forced to navigate the uncharted waters of heartbreaking grief:
But in fact I was like Ossie, in this one regard: I was consumed by a helpless, often furious love for a ghost. Every rock on the island, every swaying tree branch or dirty dish in our house was like a word in a sentence that I could read about my mother. All objects and events on our island, every single thing that you could see with your eyes, were like clues that I could use to reinvent her: would our mom love this thing, would she hate it.
When Ossie abandons Ava in order to marry one of the ghosts she's met, Ava sets out to find her big sister and to venture to the Underworld in the swamps where she thinks Ossie has gone and where she thinks she might find her mother.

Ava's trip to the Underworld is facilitated by a Hades-like figure: The Bird Man. He kills buzzards on the island and Ava believes that he can guide her to the realm of the dead. They set out on the swamp in search of Ossie and Hilola's ghost. Once isolated, The Bird Man rapes Ava. She manages to escape and is forced to navigate the swamps alone. This is perhaps the most powerful part of the novel because Ava finally sheds her child-like illusions about death. She realizes that the Underworld is not real, that her mother is truly gone and cannot be found in the vast swamp, but Ava learns something more. In the course of an alligator attack, she feels imbued with her mother's spirit and is able to fend off the animal and save herself. Ava describes it this way:
I believe I met my mother there, in the final instant. Not her ghost but some vaster portion of her, her self boundlessly recharged beneath the water. Her courage. In the cave I think she must have lent me some of it, because the strength I felt then was as huge as the sun. The yellow inside you that makes you want to live. I believe that she was the pulse and bloom that forced me toward the surface. She was the water that eased the clothes from my fingers. She was the muscular current that rode me through the water away from the den, and she was the victory howl that at last opened my mouth and filled my lungs.
In the water, wrestling the alligator as her mother once did, and as her mother taught her to do, Ava makes a connection to Hilola Bigtree. She touches the electric wire that runs between the living and the dead and that cannot be severed. Ava starts out searching for her mother's ghost and finds that no ghost exists. There are only the memories that pound in our bodies, circulate through our veins, and must sustain us for the rest of our lives.

Ultimately, Ava is saved from the swamp and so is Ossie and they're all reunited with their father. Ava has endured a journey of pain and self-discovery that leaves her scarred, traumatized, and forever changed. Now that she knows her mother is truly dead and cannot be found in the Underworld or brought back to life, she must turn to the living, to her sister and brother and father who will now help her navigate this new motherless world. Despite the loss and the suffering, she finds home again in the people she loves:
When my father stepped forward it didn't matter that we were nowhere near our island. All of us, the four of us--the five of us if you counted mom inside us--we were home. We were a family again, a love that made the roomiest privacy that I have ever occupied.
Swamplandia! is a novel about grief but, more than that, it's about love, about a family rediscovering one another, returning to one another, in the aftermath of a shattering loss. And shouldn't loss lead us back to love? Shouldn't we come away from our confrontations with death with an even stronger belief in loving as deeply as we can and giving our love to the people who are alive with us?