Ava Wrestles The Alligator by Karen Russell, 2006
The magic trick:
Balancing a weird premise with recognizable underlying conflicts
We’re back in the USA this year on SSMT. After last year’s trip around the world, we’re traveling state to state in 2022. Each week we’ll go through stories set in a different state.
I really like this story a lot. It moves along in a setting and with a language that feels special. It marks Russell out immediately as an original voice. Like a lot of her work, I do feel the slightest twinge of frustration, as the story never seems to quite match the magical mood. It just never quite gets there. But even with that said, this is really good stuff.
The balance between the weird and the familiar here is just about perfect. In many ways, this is a simple coming-of-age kind of story. Our young narrator is trying to figure out adolescence. Her sister has boyfriends and is growing more and more independent. Ava both rejects and admires all of this.
In other words, it’s likely very familiar to you. What most assuredly isn’t culled from your life is the two girls’ orphaned existence in Swamplandia! Probably didn’t grow up on an alligator farm. And did we mention that Ossie’s boyfriend may or may not be a possessive ghost?
But once you’ve adapted to the story’s parameters, you don’t even think about it. You think about the feelings. You think about the sisters’ relationship. The weird stuff is just original window dressing.
And that’s quite a trick on Russell’s part.
“Hey, Ossie? Is it just you in there?”
My older sister has entire kingdoms inside of her, and some of them are only accessible at certain seasons, in certain kinds of weather. One such melting occurs in summer rain, at midnight, during the vine-green breathing time right before sleep. You have to ask the right question, throw the right rope bridge, to get there – and then bolt across the chasm between you, before your bridge collapses.
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