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Wrestling with teenagers

Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! is a brilliant, action-packed novel about a family that owns a crocodile amusement park. The Bigtrees not only raise the crocs, which they call Seths, but also perform with them. From a young age, the children were trained to wrestle the Seths for crowds of tourists.

As you might anticipate, tragedy strikes early in the story…but not in the manner you are expecting. The mother, Hilola Bigtree, succumbs to cancer, not crocs. This is devastating for the family and for their business because she was the main draw to the theme park. Every night, she dove gracefully into a pool full of Seths. Then she swam safely to the edge and emerged triumphantly to the packed stadium’s thunderous applause. When she died, the tourists stopped coming. Her husband, known as the Chief, goes to the mainland to try and drum up sponsors for a new act. And he leaves his three teenage children alone on the island…dum dum da DUM!

Predictably, they each rebel. The Chief’s son, Kiwi, takes a job at the rival amusement park called World of Darkness. His daughter, Osceola, learns to communicate with ghosts and “dates” boys who have been dead for decades. (Talk about a world of darkness!)

But the youngest daughter’s response is perhaps most interesting. By accident, Ava discovers a baby crocodile born completely red. She raises this red Seth in secret. As the family system crumbles all around her, she devotes her energy into making a safe world for this unique animal.

The experience of the Bigtree children is obviously uncommon, but sadly, their struggle in the absence of parents is not. To be a teenager is to seek one’s identity and, especially if there is a lack of role models, it is tempting to substitute things and activities to define one’s self. While drugs and sex might be more common in this country than ghosts and crocodiles, the motivation is the still same.

But I have a great deal of respect for teenagers, and it seems that Karen Russell does as well. Samuel Beckett once said that we try and fail in order to try again and fail better. The Bigtree children make plenty of mistakes, but they learn from them. Kiwi works his way up the ladder and negotiates the complex world of employee relationships. Osceola strikes out on an adventure with a ghost; Ava follows her into the swamp, accompanied by her red Seth and a strange man who wears a bird costume…Swamplandia! is a real page turner!

You should read the book for yourself; but I wonder, how can we help teenagers today fail better? Is the church providing the necessary structure for them to make safe decisions, and yet allowing the freedom to grow? In my experience, we have failed at the later out of our exuberance for the former. In our efforts to impose rules, have we trampled on the uniqueness of individuals? Can the church be like Ava, who care for her red croc? Is the church caring for teenagers, like Ava, who are seeking a different path?

My dad once said that, through the process of growing up, every child puts the parents or guardians on trial. And every care-giver is found guilty of some imperfection. This was true of my parents. Their prayer, however, was that my brother and I would pardon them. We are all guilty in some sense; yet our family extends grace to one another.

Surely, the church makes mistakes, many of which have hurt our youth. But instead of trying to wrestle them back into the pews like crocodiles, perhaps we can give them the freedom to find their own way. Maybe they will even find their way back to us. At least, that is my prayer.

About Andrew Taylor-Troutman

I am a pastor and a preacher, a writer, a husband and a father. My professional and personal lives are deeply involved with story-telling: stories that are silly and poignant or profound and commonplace. Stories that are tear-jerkers and belly-shakers. Stories about my son, Sam, and the congregation I serve, New Dublin Presbyterian Church. Each in its own way, these personal narratives shed light on the great story that God is writing with humankind and all of creation.

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