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Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! (edition 2011)

by Karen Russell

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
2,0431503,269 (3.33)1 / 395
Authors:Karen Russell (Author)
Info:Knopf (2011), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 336 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:Fiction, contemporary American

Work details

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

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    BookshelfMonstrosity: Replete with eccentric families and mythic overtones, these larger-than-life novels are exuberantly offbeat. Big Fish depicts a son's quest to know his dying (and lying!) father better, while Swamplandia! relates the struggle of two pre-teens to protect their family's alligator-wrestling theme park.… (more)
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    BookshelfMonstrosity: These character-driven novels share a theme of unconventional families coping with mothers taken by cancer. Russell's setting gives a strong sense of place in Florida, Patchett's an atmospheric Boston. Honest, thoughtful, thorough portrayals of complicated characters and relationships distinguish both.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 149 (next | show all)
I can understand being put off by this book, but I come down on the "it's good' side. It should appeal to readers who like serious-minded oddball stuff - Saunders, O'Connor - and it's easy for me to imagine Karen Russell writing very powerful stuff in the future. Once she settles down to storytelling - after the first 5 or 6 chapters - it's a good read. And the figurative language stands out from anything I've read recently; there are some misses but most of her metaphors, similes, and analogies are good.

We're reading it now (march 2015) in reddit's /r/bbookclub, anyone is welcome to participate; www.reddit.com/r/bookclub ( )
  Earthsophagus | Mar 8, 2015 |
That's it... I simply must put this book to rest. Nearly reading to page 300, I have no interest or desire to find out the rest! I picked up this book as it was selected by one of my book clubs and the member suggesting the book had heard good comments via NPR. I can not sympathize with absentee parenting and have little tolerance reading fiction with neglectful, delusional parents. ( )
  olongbourn | Mar 1, 2015 |
I just didn't like it. My boyfriend and I read it together and we both felt a real sense of disappointment. Did we just not "get" the hype? Were we missing something? I felt disjointed most of the time like it was really two novels spliced together - one trying to work its way under the magical realism genre and the other a sort of coming of age humorous one. The result for me was muddled, and maybe I just don't like magical realism or maybe Russell was working just a little too hard at making this a quirky novel. It hit me hardest when I realized what was happening to Ava....and didn't care. Yup, I just didn't care what really happened to any of these characters and, in the end, that's not the way to endear the reader. Oh well. ( )
  kellifrobinson | Nov 25, 2014 |
Rarely has a book aroused so much controversy within my book group! Some were wowed by the story’s creative excesses and the author’s prowess at harnessing them to her cause; others found the characters improbable, the plot depressing, and the author's take on “magical realism” either a little too magical or, alternatively, not magical enough. Or perhaps we should have anticipated this, since even the Pulitzer Prize folks couldn’t seem to figure out where they came down on this one? Though I did empathize with some of the points made by the skeptics, I definitely continue to number myself among the book’s enthusiasts.

At its most superficial level, Swamplandia! relates the history of the dysfunctional Bigtree “tribe” (not a drop of actual native blood among them) who run an alligator-based tourist attraction in the Florida Everglades: Chief Bigtree, the clan’s father and the one responsible for creating and sustaining the family mythology, apparently in an attempt to elevate the chaos in which they live to something more noble; mother Hilolah, who headlines the “swimming with gators” show but whose careless courage may have more to do with bipolar disorder* than some sort of tribal manifest destiny (*high-low-la – get it? Alas, I’m a sucker for puns and wordplay); their eldest son Kiwi, the only one of the children not to buy into the family mythology but whose grasp of reality is far more tenuous than he imagines; Osceola, their ethereal albino daughter; and the narrator of the tale, 13-yr old Ava, who is the family’s “true believer” and the lens through which we experience and interpret the events of the book – much in the same way we experience the events of To Kill a Mockingbird through Scout’s eyes. This is either a brilliant (me) or frustrating (them) literary conceit that casts the elements of the story in a perpetual shroud of doubt, for while Ava is, for her part, an honest and endearing narrator, the events of the novel are filtered through (and almost surely tainted by) her self-delusions and naïveté.

The family’s precarious existence is dealt a double blow when Hilolah dies suddenly of cancer and a tourist attraction called World of Darkness (an amusement park version of Hell) opens up on the Florida mainland, robbing Swamplandia! of its remaining clientele. Each member of the family struggles to cope with this double loss in variously tragi-comic ways: Chief Bigtree, by temporarily abandoning his family to establish a secret double life; Kiwi, by fleeing to the mainland to pursue his fantasy of a “normal life”; Ava, by concocting wild schemes to save Swamplandia! from certain doom; and Osceola by seeking out the consolation of “ghosts” lingering among the reeds and melaleucas of the enclosing swamp. Then Osceola disappears permanently into the swamp one night, leaving a note that she is off to join her “ghost boyfriend” for eternity, and their precarious existence collapses entirely. Poor Ava, armed only with her mother’s courage and her child’s faith, is left to pursue her sister and try to preserve her family from disintegration - a quest that results, predictably, in disillusionment and tragedy, but also in hope and redemption.

Some of the many aspects of this book I enjoyed:

• Russell’s creative genius and lovely, lyrical prose. Make no mistake, this woman’s got serious literary chops. Can’t count the number of times a description/sentence/turn of phrase left me reeling. My copy of Swamplandia! has so many underlined passages, it looks like a college student’s philosophy textbook.

• Ava, the story’s narrator. She’s a wonderfully eccentric and wholly endearing creation. Which, of course, is why parts of the story are hard to read (a point I willingly concede to the book’s skeptics). For Ava’s sake you keep hoping for the Disney ending, even though your literary intuition senses that Russell’s bracing us for the Joseph Campbell ending instead.

• The way Russell weaves magical elements into the tale, further blurring the line perception and reality. Is Osceola’s boyfriend a true ghost, or merely a figment of her fertile imagination? Does the Birdman actually possess a magical gift to summon birds? Could vultures actually whisk a dying man into the air? Could there be an entrance to Hell in the midst of the Everglades?

• The way Russell slyly laces Darwinism throughout the tale: “survival of the fittest” as a justification for why we humans deserve what we get by pursuing an Ayn Randian brand of unfettered, soulless capitalism – expelling native Americans from Florida and destroying the Everglades by planting melaleucas so that we can literally build our own Hell (The World of Darkness).

As my book group discovered, this novel definitely isn’t everyone’s cup of tea! But if you enjoy gothic ambiance, find ambiguity intriguing rather than frustrating, appreciate literature that challenges you to think, and possess a passion for brilliantly crafted prose, you may find Swamplandia! to be as haunting, as disturbing, and as worthy as I did. ( )
  Dorritt | Nov 5, 2014 |
Swamplandia! was my first book by Karen Russell. I was halfway finished before I knew that it was considered for the Pulitzer. I don't like reviews that ruin the surprise and joy of reading and going on the journey that the author has laid for us. I won't tell anyone much about this book because I feel so strongly that you must read it to discover the mastery of storytelling mythology that Karen Russell has created.

I will say that Swamplandia! is a tourist attraction in the mangrove islands of Florida run by a the Bigtree family. Their mother Hilola, is the star of an alligator themed show and the island is full of home-made attractions. When Hilola dies, the family is blown to pieces, each into their own interwoven journeys, even the alligators. To tell you more about the story would be a disservice to both you and the Karen Russell.

But I do want you to know that the craft of this book was one of the delights and surprises of reading it. The story line and mythology is deft. But more impressive is the way in which Russell makes the reader think, Aha! This is THAT kind of book and after we are settled into the flow, changing the genre forward and backward until at the end, the book defies classification. One friend of mine was reading it and gave up because she didn't like fantasy. Others have classified it as Magical Realism, Southern Gothic, Coming of Age or Dark Journey of the Soul and with a thoughtful reading, I dare you to classify it. ( )
  smasler | Oct 9, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 149 (next | show all)
Karen Russell, one of the New Yorker's 20 best writers under 40, is certainly very talented. She received wide acclaim for her first book, the story collection St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, which first introduced the Bigtree family in the story "Ava Wrestles the Alligator". This novel has already received great reviews in the US, and it's easy to see why. Many of her descriptions are quite dazzling. On the retirement boat, "The seniors got issued these pastel pajamas that made them look like Easter eggs in wheelchairs." In the swamp, "two black branches spooned out of the same wide trunk. They looked like mirror images, these branches, thin and papery and perfectly cupped, blue sky shining between them, and an egret sat on the scooped air like a pearl earring."

Over 300 pages, the density of the prose can become a bit exhausting, however, and Russell's ability to describe everything in minute and quirky detail is sometimes overwhelming.
Toward the end, the narrative takes an unexpected turn, finally unraveling its intricate balance between a child's stubborn imagination and the stark horrors of reality.
added by WeeklyAlibi | editWeekly Alibi, Sam Adams (Feb 24, 2011)

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Karen Russellprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Gall, JohnCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"I see nobody on the road," said Alice. "I only wish that I had such eyes," the King remarked in a fretful tone. "To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too! Why it's as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!" --Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
For my family
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Our mother performed in starlight.
The lake was planked with great gray and black bodies.  Hilola Bigtree had to hit the water with perfect precision, making incremental adjustments midair to avoid the gators.
The Chief blinked and blinked, as if he had momentarily blinded himself with his own silver lining.
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Book description
As their island home and alligator-wrestling theme park is threatened by a sophisticated competitor, twelve-year-old Ava struggles to cope with her mother's death while her sister, brother, and father all try to deal with their grief in their own unusual ways.
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This novel takes us to the swamps of the Florida Everglades, and introduces us to Ava Bigtree, an unforgettable young heroine. The Bigtree alligator wrestling dynasty is in decline, and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator wrestling theme park, formerly no. 1 in the region, is swiftly being encroached upon by a fearsome and sophisticated competitor called the World of Darkness. Ava's mother, the park's indomitable headliner, has just died; her sister, Ossie, has fallen in love with a spooky character known as the Dredgeman, who may or may not be an actual ghost; and her brilliant big brother, Kiwi, who dreams of becoming a scholar, has just defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their family business from going under. Ava's father, affectionately known as Chief Bigtree, is AWOL, and that leaves Ava, a resourceful but terrified thirteen, to manage ninety eight gators as well as her own grief. Against a backdrop of hauntingly fecund plant life animated by ancient lizards and lawless hungers, the author has written a novel about a family's struggle to stay afloat in a world that is inexorably sinking.… (more)

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