SWAMPLANDIA! by Karen Russell

Book Quote:

“You thought you couldn’t stand not to know a thing until you knew it, wasn’t that right? Who had said that, the Chief? Some poet from the Library Boat, maybe.

Knowledge at last, Kiwi’s mind recited dutifully. The fish’s living eye glass.

Sometimes you would prefer a mystery to remain red-gilled and buried inside you, Kiwi decided, alive and alive inside you.”

Book Review:

Review by Devon Shepherd  (FEB 02, 2011)

In her hotly-anticipated debut novel, Swamplandia!, Karen Russell returns to the mosquito-droves and muggy-haze of the Florida Everglades and the gator-themed amusement park featured in her short story, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” that opened her widely-praised 2006 collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. It was that collection, with its exuberant mix of satire and fabulism, that secured Russell’s reputation as one of the most exciting up-and-comers around and earned her a coveted spot on The New Yorker’s much buzzed about “20 under 40” list last fall. With her energetic prose, quirky settings, and fantastical plots, Russell is a writer’s whose style forces you to sit up and take notice, sometimes at the cost of emotional involvement with her work. However, Swamplandia!, with all its flashing-neon prose is an insightful (and surprisingly funny) exploration of the loss of innocence that inevitably follows the death of a parent.

In the year following her mother’s death, 13-year-old Ava Bigtree quickly learns how “one tragedy can beget another and another.” Since birth, their family-owned, 100-acre island attraction, Swamplandia!, has been Ava’s home. Its 98 alligators (all named after their original gator, Seth, because as Chief Bigtree likes to say “Tradition is as important as promotional materials are expensive.”), Reptile Walk, Live Chicken Thursday feeding shows, and lone mammal, a balding, rhythmless bear named Judy Garland, have all helped Swamplandia! hold its position as the “Number One Gator-Themed Park and Swamp Café” in southwestern Florida. That, and Ava’s mother’s gator-swim routine. However, when Hilola Bigtree dies of ovarian cancer, Chief Bigtree, lost in his own fog of grief, fails to amend the promotional materials and tourists continue to file off the Mainland-Swamplandia! ferry eager to watch the “Swamp Centaur” swim through a gator pit “planked with great grey and black bodies.” Initially, the disappointed mainlanders are understanding –- after all, a family has lost its mother – but, their hijacked sympathy soon swings to money-back-demanding indignation, until a new corporate theme park, the World of Darkness, opens just off the highway, and the tourists stop coming altogether.

With the tourists gone and their father increasingly preoccupied, Ava and her dreamy older sister, Osceola, (white-haired and violet-eyed, Ossie resembles “the doomed sibling you see in those Wild West daguerreotypes, the one who makes you think Oh God take the picture quick; this one isn’t long for this world”) are left alone with empty days to fill. The girls take to hanging out on the abandoned library boat with their studious brother, Kiwi. Kiwi is the kind of guy who gives himself report cards and studies for his SATs long before he’s even stepped foot inside a high school, and so he scoffs when he learns that Ava and Osceola plan to contact their mother with Ossie’s newly acquired occult powers and their homemade Ouija board.

Their unsuccessful séances crush Ava, but when Ossie starts using the Ouija board on her own to meet other ghosts –strange men! – Ava tattles to their father: her sister is dating men, dead ones. Burdened by the park’s mounting debt and his own mismanaged grief, Chief Bigtree isn’t up to dealing with his lonely and disturbed 16-year old daughter.

Or anything else, for that matter.

Angry at his father’s inability to face their increasingly precarious financial situation, Kiwi runs away to the mainland to save his family from destitution and is initiated into the realities of minimum-wage labor as a peon at the World of Darkness. And so, when the Chief disappears to the mainland on mysterious business, Ava and Osceola are left to fend for themselves in the swamp. However, as Osceola’s romance with the ghost of a ill-fated, Depression-era dredgeman, Louis Thanksgiving, intensifies, Ava is left increasingly alone. When Ossie runs off to the Underworld to elope with Louis Thanksgiving, a mysterious stranger, the Bird Man, offers to be Ava’s guide in her quest to retrieve her sister

Forget Dante’s rings or Homer’s River Styx; this is mangrove swamp as the Underworld! With its fecundity and “blue lozenge” water ways, Ava frets that the swamp doesn’t look much like the underworld she’s read about in books, but with its “leafy catacombs,” ravenous mosquitoes, and “rotten-egg smell [that] rose off the pools of water that collected beneath the mangrove’s stilted roots,” but I can’t think of a milieu more likely to harbor ghosts.

Part of successfully navigating the swamps of adolescence involves knowing which beliefs to cling to tenaciously, and which to modify, if not altogether discard. Although the inevitable loss of innocence that follows is heart-breaking, as the Bigtree children learn that life on the mainland is just as imperfect as life on the swamp, that loving a ghost, if possible, comes with a steep cost, that mothers, once dead, stay gone, Russell never lets us lose our sense of humor. Moreover, as Ava oscillates between her girlish beliefs and her adult awakening, Russell maintains expert control over the narrative. So much so, in fact, that the reader, like Ava, is unsure of exactly what to believe. That is, until disaster strikes, and the reader is left sharing Ava’s sentiment: we should have seen it coming all along.

Ava and Osceola’s story is about loneliness, loss and sisterly love, but Kiwi’s sudden emersion in the ways of the contemporary teen helps to lighten some of that darkness. Fascinated by the alien customs around him, Kiwi takes to writing down his observations while his colleagues take to calling him Margaret Mead. His education into mainland life is perceptive, and often hilarious.

Swamplandia! is a quirky, but well-crafted read, and Russell’s prose is dynamite. While the ending might be too pat for some, I was so impressed by Russell’s knack for description and laughed far too many times (really!) to hold it against the book. Karen Russell has been likened to writers as wide ranging as Amy Hempel, George Saunders, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kelly Link and Judy Blume, and while her energetic prose might be too exhausting for some, if her writing is anything, it’s this: original.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 462 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf (February 1, 2011)
REVIEWER: Devon Shepherd
AUTHOR WEBSITE: MacArthur Foundation page on Karen Russell
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another Southern Florida story:


February 2, 2011 · Judi Clark · 3 Comments
Tags: , , , , , ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Coming-of-Age, Contemporary, Family Matters, Florida, Humorous, Unique Narrative

3 Responses

  1. poornima - February 3, 2011

    What a fantastic review! Looking forward to reading the book someday soon.

  2. dougbrun - February 5, 2011

    Devon ~ Thanks for the great review. Poornima was gushing over Swamplandia on FB yesterday and I wondered what all the fuss was about. Now I know! Thanks.

  3. dshepherd79 - February 6, 2011

    Thanks Poornima!

    Doug: Yeah Swamplandia! is definitely worth a read, but as good as it is, I don’t feel Karen Russell has reached her potential yet. I think this is a writer who is going to blow us out of the water with her second book…I feel she is really that talented.

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