Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2011

Borrowed from the library.  This is the book that made me break the TBR Dare.

Ava Bigtree lives in a swamp.  Her dad, “Chief'” Bigtree, runs an island amusement park complete with alligator wrestling, The Swamp Cafe and Live Chicken Thursdays.  Everything is going swimmingly until her mother Hilola, champion alligator wrestler and star of the show, suddenly dies.  Is this the beginning of the end for Swamplandia!.  Will the Bigtree ” Tribe” fall with it?

Karen Russell has created a strong young heroine and placed her in the middle of a place with the tacky feel of  a 1950’s roadside attraction.  Ava Bigtree,  her older siblings, brother Kiwi and sister Ossie, live in the theme park, are part of the show, and are completely disconnected from the rest of modern America.  Of course, they suffer the quirks and passions of growing up under very usual circumstances.

Ossie’s smile flickered.  “I don’t see how we’d do very well there, Ava.  I don’t see how we could really ever catch up.  What grade would they even put us in, at a Loomis school?  I mean are they going to offer a class for spiritualists?  Gym class for you?  Gym credits for alligator wrestlers?”  She flopped onto the bed and pushed two stained pillows at our ceiling like pom-poms:  “Ava, I know!  We can try out for the cheerleading squad!”

I laughed, startled – Ossie sounded as bitter as any adult.  And Ossie was never the wise guy in our family.  The jags of intelligence inside my sister shocked everybody, tourists and Bigtrees alike – she’d say something smart out of nowhere and prove to us she wasn’t only a dreamer.  Every time Ossie was funny or mean it surprised me; it was like your skiff hitting and intricate reef, all those delicate white fans that wouldn’t yield, or like your foot scraping a rock in the middle of a deep, empty lake.  Even her fantasies had such rocks in them.  From pages 86/87.

Russell is a master at clear, concise narration that weaves magical realism with American culture.  Her skill with language creates an oddly twisted story, a fairytale, at times like Disney, at others like Grimm.  The strength of Ava’s love for her family is what sees her through the loss of her mother, separation from her siblings and her desperate search for Ossie, who run off into the swamp to marry a ghost.  I love Russell’s ability to express the connections that develop between siblings.

That night we unrolled our bright blue tarps onto the floor of the central room, which gave the wrecked wood a planetary look.  I wanted to play the End of the World, a cheery game Ossie and I had invented in our bedroom, back when the worst threat we faced was Mom’s Spaghetti Surprise.  We rolled blankets down the stairs and pretended that we were reupholstering the dead world.  The towels were the grass and the seas.  Ossie always wanted to be the creator and fluff the prairies, and I’d burst in as the destroyer and kick at stuff and roll everything up again.  Mom hated this game because all her towels ended up on the floor.  Before the ghosts showed up, we played all kinds of silly games like that, doing a theater of personalities for each other.  Ossie like to be the sweet and kind one:  saints, princesses, Vanna White.  Not me!  Even in games I liked to play myself:  Ava Bigtree, World Champion Alligator Wrestler.  I was as strong as ten men, ferocious.  Ossie always let me be the hero.  From page 177.

I love Karen Russell’s short stories.   St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves is a favorite of mine and I looked forward to this novel with great anticipation.  Parts of it are amazing and other parts just don’t hold together.  I feel Russell tried to cram too many elements into this first novel.  That doesn’t mean it is not a great story, moving, perceptive and at times very funny.  It is Ava’s thirteen-year-old observations of her family and their shared lives that really hold this book together.

Swamplandia! is based on a story from St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and includes another story that I read in the New Yorker last summer.  It may be the piecing together of these separate bits that makes this novel feel like it doesn’t really hold together for me.  Or it could be that it’s just all about sinking into the muck and seeing what eventually floats to the surface, some of which I loved.

Other reviews:


The Mookse and the Gripes


Filed under ContemporaryFiction, Review

17 responses to “Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

  1. This one is way high on my list, as I think I’ve whined before. It sits on a healthy long list of things I intend to read after April 1st comes around. Nice job on the review!

  2. I heard about this via books on the nightstand I hope to read it at some point it seems a very different story there are some great new writers around at moment ,all the best stu

  3. A lot of first novels try to do too much — people aren’t able to prune, I guess is the problem. That’s why I’m always skeptical when a first novel gets rave reviews: sometimes they’re genuinely wonderful, like The Time Traveler’s Wife, and sometimes they’re more meh, like Water for Elephants.

    • I think your right, Jenny. It is probably difficult for editors trying to guide an up and coming author. I had a totally opposite response to The Time Traveler’s Wife and Water for Elephants. Go figure!

  4. Well, I’ll definitely be reading this one because I went out and bought it *laughs* Glad there were elements you loved. I’m looking forward to it because I have heard so many good things about this young author. Thanks for the review!

    • You are welcome, Wendy. There are parts of “Swamplandia!” that I truly loved. I am curious about what you will think of it.

  5. I read The Monsters of Templeton last year and although it had good bits as a whole it didn’t work but her short stories are among the best I ever read. Sounds like a similar case. Still I am interested and put it on the wish list and will defintely try to get her short story collection. Thanks for mentioning it.

    • Thanks for the comment, Caroline. I felt the same way about Monsters of Templeton but haven’t read Groff’s short stories yet. I guess I will have to read them!

  6. Ti

    This is one of those titles that I wait on. I wait until I’ve heard the opinions of others before picking it up, and so far… I am not compelled to pick it up anytime soon.

  7. I’m curious to see how that short story fits into this longer work because it was one of my favourites from TNY’s series last year. Swamplandia is rapidly moving up the stack next to the bed but I’m “saving” a spot for it thinking that it might require more concentration than I have these days.

    • It is as if “The Dredgeman’s Revelation” was one of the seeds of “Swamplandia”, that a main idea of the book sprouted from it. I also loved that story when I read it.

  8. I concur (and thanks for linking to review plus sorry for my delay in reading blogs this month!) I really liked parts of it, but the magical realism didn’t really work for me here and I felt the novel lost its way. I’m certainly glad I read it and look forward to seeing what she does next. I got to hear her speak this spring, and it was quite fascinating too!

  9. Pingback: Karen Russell – Swamplandia! « Fyrefly's Book Blog

  10. Pingback: Book Review: Swamplandia! | The Indiscriminate Critic

  11. Pingback: Book Review: Swamplandia! | The Indiscriminate Critic

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