Summary and book reviews of Swamplandia! by Karen Russell


A Novel

by Karen Russell

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  • First Published:
    Feb 2011, 336 pages
    Jul 2011, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Amy Reading

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Book Summary

From the celebrated twenty-nine-year-old author of the everywhere-heralded short-story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves comes a blazingly original debut novel that takes us back 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 #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 and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief.

Against a backdrop of hauntingly fecund plant life animated by ancient lizards and lawless hungers, Karen Russell has written an utterly singular novel about a family’s struggle to stay afloat in a world that is inexorably sinking. An arrestingly beautiful and inventive work from a vibrant new voice in fiction.

Chapter One: The Beginning of the End

Our mother performed in starlight. Whose innovation this was I never discovered. Probably it was Chief Bigtree’s idea, and it was a good one—to blank the follow spot and let a sharp moon cut across the sky, unchaperoned; to kill the microphone; to leave the stage lights’ tin eyelids scrolled and give the tourists in the stands a chance to enjoy the darkness of our island; to encourage the whole stadium to gulp air along with Swamplandia!’s star performer, the world-famous alligator wrestler Hilola Bigtree. Four times a week, our mother climbed the ladder above the Gator Pit in a green two-piece bathing suit and stood on the edge of the diving board, breathing. If it was windy, her long hair flew around her face, but the rest of her stayed motionless. Nights in the swamp were dark and star-lepered—our island was thirty-odd miles off the grid of mainland lights—and although your naked eye could easily find the ball of ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's discussion of Swamplandia!, the eagerly awaited first novel by Karen Russell, acclaimed author of the short story collection St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.

About This Book
"This was the first time I've read Karen Russell's work, and I was dazzled. It's very rare, among the tonnage of manuscripts and galleys that land upon one's desk, to come across a young novelist so inventive and versatile, yet so thoroughly in control. Also, I'm a sucker for any plot line that features man-eating reptiles. . . . Passages of this fine novel call to mind Conrad, García Márquez, and even—for those...
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The elements of Swamplandia!'s world do not sound promising. They sound, admittedly, rather random and outlandish, as cheesy as the Bigtrees' amusement park itself: alligators, a Ouija board, a Depression-era ghost, buzzards by the dozens, a "bird man" who whistles to lure the buzzards away, another amusement park modeled on hell. But if this sounds over the top to you, it doesn't to Ava Bigtree, and the wise earnestness with which she narrates her life will seduce you into listening. If I cited every worthwhile example of Russell’s prose, this review would be exactly as long as the book itself. Her gorgeous phrasing is at once so surprising and so right.   (Reviewed by Amy Reading).

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Media Reviews

The New York Times - Janet Maslin

Ms. Russell knows how to use bizarre ingredients to absolutely irresistible effect…the book's a marvel…

The New York Times Book Review - Emma Donoghue

Vividly worded, exuberant in characterization, the novel is a wild ride: Russell has style in spades…If Russell's style is a North American take on magical realism, then her commitment to life's nitty-gritties anchors the magic; we are more inclined to suspend disbelief at the moments that verge on the paranormal because she has turned Swamplandia! into a credible world.

The Washington Post - Ron Charles

Russell has perfected a tone of deadpan wit and imperiled innocence that I find deeply endearing…you never know when a riptide of tragedy might pull away the humor of Swamplandia!

Kirkus Reviews

Quirky, outlandish fiction: To say it's offbeat is to seriously underestimate its weirdness.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Russell's willingness to lend flesh and blood to her fanciful, fantastical creations gives this spry novel a potent punch and announces an enthralling new beginning for a quickly evolving young author.


Starred Review. Russell’s archetypal swamp saga tells a mystical yet rooted tale of three innocents who come of age through trials of water, fire, and air.

Library Journal

Starred Review. A phantasmagorical tale of teens left on their own to battle their demons, mixed with a brief history of the Sunshine State, Russell's book will appeal to young adults as well as their folks.

Reader Reviews

Kelli Robinson

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 ...   Read More

Beach Reader

Too much swamp
Aptly named book. Way too much swamp and not enough people. The characters are so slimline drawn that it is hard to connect with them. I was so glad to see the end of the book but sad that I didn't really feel touched by the saga.

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The Ten Thousand Islands

Swamplandia! so successfully embeds itself in the reader's mind because of Karen Russell's thick and knowledgeable descriptions of The Ten Thousand Islands, which do not seem to figure into many other literary works.

Mangrove swamp imageThe region is a chain of hundreds of mangrove islets, tall sawgrass marsh, and brackish water where salt and fresh water mix, located off the southwest coast of Florida, roughly between the cities of Naples and Flamingo. They comprise the Ten Thousand Island National Wildlife Refuge, and part of the Everglades National Park. They are home to manatees, loggerhead sea turtles, dolphins and alligators, in addition to over 189 species of birds and over 200 species of fish.

Because the mangroves are so dense and the canals ...

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