There are places that naturally evoke mystery. Rocky, windswept shores. Dense and shadowy forests. And, perhaps more than any other, swamps.
In her novel Swamp, author Karen Yochim skillfully uses the mystery, danger, and lushness of swampland to create a story both realistic and mystical. She places her novel not just in any swamp, but in the magnificent Atchafalaya, the largest swamp in North America, in the late 19th century—just before Yankee loggers came to wreak havoc on it.
Swamp, like the setting it is named for, is laced with mystery: A man disappears. A body emerges. An ominous stranger appears out of the North. Objects are stolen and lost, identities questioned. As in a swamp, nothing in the lives of Yochim’s rich, multifaceted characters can be taken for granted.
But, just as a swamp continually generates new life out of decay, new lives are generated in this colorful story. At heart, the novel is about a woman’s search for herself. Sidonie, the young protagonist, is a lonely and abused young woman, uncertain of her parentage, under the thumb of a cruel elder sister, and engaged to a man she doesn’t love. As the story progresses, she grows in stature and strength, and we watch with fascinating and admiration as she courageously finds her footing.
Sidonie's life, and Yochim’s novel, are alive with the flavors, smells, and sounds of the Atchafalaya and the Cajun people living there—with the customs and cooking, the folklore and the rhythms of the language. Yochim's depictions of the swamp are sensory and evocative. She writes of the “gumbo-colored water,” “flat and silver rice fields,” and the “great simmering stew of budding plant life, fish life, and millions of insects and birds.” Sidonie reflects often on the wetland that is her home: “I smiled at the completeness of the swamp . . that needed nothing and lacked for nothing.”
Unique to Yochim's work is the extent to which animals are incorporated into the lives of the characters. Animals are forgotten by many writers—as if they don’t play constant and essential roles in our lives—but Yochim seamlessly weaves them into the fabric of her novel. They are present on almost page—as food, pests, and beasts of burden, of course, but also as friends, helpmates, coworkers, caretakers, enemies, messengers, pillagers, omens, and healers. Animals don't become part of the setting, as they do in so much fiction, but are depicted as beings with feelings. Of her horse, Sidonie says, “I entered Solange’s stall where she must have wondered why I was bothering her so late at night.” She describes a dog’s emotions as he watches over her, “Gator, brown eyes glinting in the light, gazed at me as though to say, . . . You have no worries with me around.” Sidonie, like her author, has a deep kinship with animals and a respect for their lives. Even when she kills for food, it is with compassion. “When I’d postponed the job of killing a hen as long as I could,” she tells us, “I finally selected one and wrung her neck, closing my eyes . . .”
Yochim does not let us forget for a moment that the human and natural worlds are one. The story of Sidonie and her struggle for selfhood, of the Cajun community, of the swamp and the life burgeoning from it, are laced together in complex and beautiful ways throughout her novel. Open these pages, and you will find yourself transported immediately into that world: into "the mystical space of the great Atchafalaya, the unending swamp of the towering cypresses, that region of shadowy mystery and strange night music.”
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...