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201 Surviving the Economic Apocalypse Capitalism, Consumption, and the Indian Imaginary in Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! melanie benson taylor Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! is like no book you’ve ever read before—and if you’re like many adult readers, it may not sound like one you’d want to pick up in the first place. As a 2011 review in the New York Times put it, this is “a novel about alligator wrestlers, a balding brown bear named Judy Garland, a Bird Man specializing in buzzard removal, a pair of dueling Florida theme parks . . . a Ouija board and the dead but still flirtatious Louis Thanksgiving. Sound appealing? No, it does not.”1 The reviewer’s point, however, was that this “noxiously fanciful” narrative nevertheless appeals on a visceral level. Indeed, the marvel of Swamplandia! is Karen Russell’s ability to make the un‑ canny seem familiar and to render even the most implausible events shatter‑ ingly tangible. In a surprisingly affective way, this allegorical neo-­ southern family wrestles not just swamp demons and ghosts but the rapacious intru‑ sion of advanced capitalism into their verdant idyll. It is a powerful render‑ ing of the weird, pseudo-­reality we inhabit in the twenty-­first century and the fictions we marshal to make sense of it all. Still, despite the positive reviews and the giddy buzz about the book in southern literature circles, I probably wouldn’t have given it a chance but for one thing: it has Indians in it. At least, I thought it did. According to the dust jacket synopsis, “Thirteen-­year-­old Ava Bigtree has lived her entire life at Swamplandia!, her family’s island home and gator-­wrestling theme park in the Florida Everglades.” The family surname instantly struck me as indigenous, albeit in the stereotypical way that any pairing of an animal or element of nature with a descriptive adjective immediately conjures a grim-­faced Indian in a warbonnet. A few pages in, however, I discovered I’d been duped: while the Bigtree family considers itself a “tribe” and poses for advertisements and performances in makeshift headdresses and war paint, they are in fact the white descendants of a coal miner from Ohio. Ernest Shedrach, after losing his job at a pulp mill in 1932, had fled with his wife to the then-­ wild lands of South Florida, changing his name to “Sawtooth Bigtree” to evade his old boss 202 taylor (to whom he owed a sizable debt). The new identity is a cover, but Ernest clearly embraces the opportunity for a rebirth of sorts, an escape from the “pitiful wages,” ringing ears, and “bleached vision caused by blinking into the chemicals” for so many years. He chooses the name “Sawtooth” in honor of the island’s sedge, and “Bigtree” appealed to him with its “root-­ strong,” in­ digenous sound.2 In one swift act of self-­reclamation, he and his descendants are reborn as Natives. On a tiny, swampy island in the Everglades reachable only by ferry, the Shedrachs-­ cum‑Bigtrees effectively function as proxies for America’s second-­wave settlement of weary pioneers, looking to flee the hard‑ scrabble industrialism of the early twentieth century in the wild, purchasing a “hundred-­ acre waste” marketed rhapsodically by northern realtors as an “American Eden.”3 There they spawn a dynasty of gator-­ wrestling—a voca‑ tion with an illustrious indigenous pedigree, particularly among local Semi‑ noles. They “go Native” in an utterly pragmatic, shrewdly entrepreneurial, and uniquely American manner. “Playing Indian” is, of course, a trope that dates back to the earliest mo‑ ments of our national story: members of the Tea Party (then and now) have dressed up as Indians to express their indignation over taxation from external entities. For countless American authors, indigenous pasts and allies have frequently served to combat the incursions of colonial-­ capitalist develop‑ ment. The ideological Indian has shifted character and purpose along with the changing needs of the dominant national culture, absorbing its anxiet‑ ies and desires like allegorical tofu. By far the most persistent and revealing flavor bestowed on the all-­ purpose, American Indian is the wise, romantic, ecolog­ ical anticapitalist who protects the spirit and memory of our deepest national values particularly at the moments when we seem to be losing or forgetting them. As Iron Eyes Cody demonstrated enduringly in the popular television ad campaigns of the 1970s, weeping and paddling his way down a garbage-­ strewn river, Indians dislike littering and pollution, just as...


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