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Literary Friday: Swamplandia!

Friday, March 25, 2011


This week I read Swamplandia! by Karen Russell.  This book should have come with a warning label. It's like giving a person a cigarette and telling her: "This will help you relax, lose weight, and give you something to do with your hands in awkward social situations" without telling her that: "Oh! And they cause cancer, are addictive, contain nicotine and carcinogens, and can cause birth defects if you are pregnant."  I found it very disturbing, and although the book flap gives a very broad plot outline, there is no indication at all about how dark this novel truly is.

The book is (for the most part) told from Ava Bigtree's point of view.  Ava is fourteen years old, and the youngest daughter in a family of  alligator wrestlers.  The family owns an alligator theme park called Swamplandia! in a swamp near the Gulf of Mexico and out from Ocala, Florida.  There they put on shows, conduct swamp tours, run a museum, and operate a diner. Ava's mother Hilola, the star of the Swamplandia! Gator Show, died of ovarian cancer the year before the book opens.  Since she had been the big draw for tourists, business is way down. Ava's father Chief Bigtree retreats to the mainland to supplement their income as a result. The oldest sibling, Ava's brother Kiwi, abandons his sisters and gets a job on the mainland at their new competitor, a theme park called the World of Darkness.  Since the World of Darkness' opening, almost all business ceases to exist. Ava's sister, Osceola, talks to ghosts and claims to have fallen in love with the ghost of a WPA dredgeman.  He dies one of the sickest deaths I have ever read in fiction, and Osceola runs away with him to live in the underworld leaving Ava all alone.

What happens to Ava is nightmarish.  I think that Karen Russell is a brilliant writer, and her sense of place is uncanny.  The world she has created is fantastical, terrifying, and brilliant. Her descriptions of the World of Darkness theme park (where the patrons are called lost souls) are so bizarre and creative that it is worth reading the book just for Kiwi's coming of age story from his point of view.

I do have a bit of a problem with the inconsistency of Ava's voice.  As a reader, you really get rooked-in to the fantasy bit about the underworld, as if Dante is waiting to guide you. What is fantasy and real in the book is a bit cloudy to me until the end, and I must confess that I am still not one hundred percent sure.  The book at times reads like a fantasy, and maybe it is depending on whether or not you believe Osceola's obsession with the occult is a real gift (or curse), or whether or not she is schizophrenic.

I will definitely keep an eye out for Karen Russell's next book.  I just wish I had not been so blindsided by Ava's tragic circumstances.  I thought that this was going to be a fun spring break read; I could not have been more wrong. It is way to dark for that, so if you choose to read this book, you have been forewarned.  If you would like for me to email you spoilers, I will be happy to, but I cannot post them.

Until next time...

Happy reading!
Ricki Jill


  1. Interesting..I used to read all the time..but, time is not what I have a lot of..the last book I read was The Lovely Bones..I hope to get some reading time this summer..this book I might have to pass on. Will wait to see what you read next!
    Have a great weekend,

  2. You have me so interested being the noisy person I am but I'm scared!!!
    I was at Chapter's on Saturday and was reading the cover of two different books ...bascially same topics...true story of a horrendous upbringing of a little girl. Maybe you've heard of it Anya? I know if I read these books I will never get the horror out of my head!!
    You do such an awesome job when it comes to giving a summary of a book!

  3. I certainly wouldn't have expected such a dark book based from the cover alone. The art work looks kind of cute and folksy with the braids blowing in the wind and all. Thanks for the forewarning.

  4. And this has been on my list for so long! I have read a couple of reviews but did not realize there was such a dark element here. I might postpone this one in order to read something a little more likely not to keep me up at night.

  5. In this case you definitely cannot judge a book by its cover!
    I think I'll steer clear of this one, thanks for the heads up.
    Bon weekend

  6. Hmmm...I thought I knew this title but I think I was confusing it with the children's book, Westlandia..sounds like a must read for me. Thanks for this one.

  7. Hmmm...thanks for the heads up! Doesn't sound like my kind of reading material.
    Hope you are having a most splendid weekend!

  8. Thanks for sharing! I'll have to think about this one! I wonder if I can handle it. I'll keep checking your site, as I LOVE to read! I have done six book reviews on my site (short ones, they are on two separate posts.) I plane to do a review at least once a month. Check them out.

  9. The cover art for this book is actually from a book called "Our Indians" written by Luther Daniels Bradley, who was the staff cartoonist for the Chicago Daily News around 1900 (and who was my great-grandfather)

  10. I JUST finished this one...and I agree with you 100%! The ending was eerie and a bit vague...but right around when Ava runs into "Mama Weeds", I was quite convinced she was actually in the Underworld. It felt so much like a Greek tragedy, and epically darker than I expected (I agree about LT's death.....ugh).


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I'm Ricki Jill. Welcome! I'm honored that you're reading my blog. I enjoy sharing my creative lifestyle @ The Bookish Dilettante. For more information about my blog, please read the Start Here page. Thank-you for stopping by, and I hope you'll consider following me via email.


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