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Swamplandia! (Vintage Contemporaries) Paperback – July 26, 2011

3.2 out of 5 stars 668 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Guest Reviewer: Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen was born and raised in Florida. He is the author of twelve novels, including the bestselling Star Island, Nature Girl, Skinny Dip, Sick Puppy, and Lucky You, and three bestselling children’s books: Hoot, Flush, and Scat. He also writes a weekly column for The Miami Herald.

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.

Swamplandia! is the story of Ava Bigtree, a 12-year-old alligator wrestler who embarks on an improbable journey through the mangrove wilderness of southwest Florida in search of a lost sister. Young Osceola has run off with a ghost-figure named Louis Thanksgiving, and only Ava knows where to look for them, dreading what she might find. Passages of this fine novel call to mind Conrad, Garcia Marquez and even – for those who have kids – Judy Blume. There’s not a forgettable character in the cast, from Ava’s flamboyant father, Chief Bigtree, who runs the family’s failing tourist trap, to the bedraggled and cryptic Bird Man, who guides Ava on her harrowing trip.

Having spent many days in the Ten Thousand Islands, I was enchanted by Russell’s dream-like descriptions of the tangled and serpentine creeks, the funky and exotic flora, the long stare of circling buzzards. Her prose is both shimmering and stark: “A huge hole in the middle of the ceiling opened onto a clear night sky; it looked as if some great predator had peeled the thatched roof back, sniffed once and lost interest.”

Or the way she describes a “cauldron” of moths with “sapphire-tipped wings, a sky-flood of them…They had fixed wings like sharp little bones, these moths, and it was astonishingly sad when you accidentally killed one.”

I can’t recall the last time I came across a character who shines as brightly as Ava, or a first novel that made such a rich and lasting impression.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Russell’s lavishly imagined and spectacularly crafted first novel sprang from a story in her highly praised collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006). Swamplandia! is a shabby tourist attraction deep in the Everglades, owned by the Bigtree clan of alligator wrestlers. When Hilola, their star performer, dies, her husband and children lose their moorings, and Swamplandia! itself is endangered as audiences dwindle. The Chief leaves. Brother Kiwi, 17, sneaks off to work at the World of Darkness, a new mainland amusement park featuring the “rings of hell.” Otherworldly sister Osceola, 16, vanishes after falling in love with the ghost of a young man who died while working for the ill-fated Dredge and Fill Campaign in the 1930s. It’s up to Ava, 13, to find her sister, and her odyssey to the Underworld is mythic, spellbinding, and terrifying. Russell’s powers reside in her profound knowledge of the great imperiled swamp, from its alligators and insects, floating orchids and invasive “strangler” melaleuca trees to the tragic history of its massacred indigenous people and wildlife. Ravishing, elegiac, funny, and brilliantly inquisitive, 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. --Donna Seaman --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (July 26, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780307276681
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307276681
  • ASIN: 0307276686
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (668 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #18,002 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This review has no spoilers...

Now that I'm done with this novel, I'm not sure I'm glad I read it. And it's as much my fault as it is that of its marketing.

First, I want to make it clear that author Karen Russell does indeed have prodigious talent. She writes with passion and energy, and there is not a page of this book that doesn't carry her florid stamp upon it.

It also has a great cover, and my paperback edition's dappled, textured surface makes it a pleasure to hold. And inside that cover are five pages of glowing reviews.

To be sure, one of the reasons I picked up this book was the teaser on the back cover: "As (the narrator) sets out on a mission through the magical swamps to save them all, we are drawn into a lush and bravely imagined debut that takes us to the shimmering edge of reality." So I should have been prepared for a "bravely imagined book." And, well, I got that...but I can't help but feel it has some major flaws.

First: as to her talent, there is much to applaud; there is an ethereal aura of fantasy to much of this. As her debut work it is remarkable...her words have a magic to them all of their own, an alluring quality that makes the words on the page seem more like ripples in a small sea, rushing by you as you read. She knows how to turn a phrase, and the florid, fecund swamp is a rich field for her to plumb, yielding a bounty of surreal images and dark magic.

Here is one remarkable passage out of a million: "What rolled through Louis' mind were like the shells of thoughts, a series of O!s, round and empty, like the discarded rinds of screams.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I had high expectations of this novel based on the buzz; I'm a lover of southern gothic and thought this would be right up my alley. It's the story of the Bigtree family, a "tribe" who runs the alligator-wrestling park Swamplandia! in an island chain off of Florida. Having the island to themselves except for the tourists, the Bigtrees inhabit a very different sort of world; they have a museum filled with family artifacts, children who are homeschooled and rarely set foot on the "mainland," and a mother who wrestles alligators. Things hum along nicely until their mother, Hilola Bigtree, succumbs to cancer, throwing the entire family into a tailspin.

After Hilola's death, Ava, the youngest, narrates the downward spiral of her family: oldest brother Kiwi goes to work at a rival theme park in a desperate attempt to alleviate the family's financial distress; middle sister Osceola discovers a book of spells and starts dating ghosts, and their father, Chief Bigtree, disappears to the mainland. Ava becomes determined to do something to save her family and especially her sister, who disappears on a journey to the Underworld to marry her ghost boyfriend. Ava ventures after her, into a journey that is more fraught with danger than she could have imagined. This journey is fraught with tension but it takes a sudden dark, disturbing turn that, without giving away any spoilers, felt like it had broken away from the original spirit of the book. The transition from magical realism to harsh, ugly reality was just too sudden to me.

The writing is very descriptive and quite lovely, but at times it almost feels like too much--or perhaps just feels misplaced, as sometimes it felt like you had to wade through a great deal of description to get to the plot.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
In truth, I picked up Karen Russell's "Swamplandia!" as a bit of a lark. The gaping maw of a ferocious alligator on its cover propelled instinct number one. Heck, who doesn't love gators? But, ultimately, what sold me was an endorsement by the wizard of comic mayhem himself--Carl Hiaasen. Hiaasen has, almost single-handedly, defined an entire eccentric Florida community of malcontents and misfits in the underbelly of polite society. And if he were willing to embrace Russell's Bigtree clan, that was certainly enough of an incentive to propel me on a trip to "Swamplandia!" Swamplandia! references an isolated wildlife park in the Florida swamps that is a product of days gone by. Struggling to keep the park solvent, we're introduced to the eccentric Bigtree clan. Opinionated father Chief, his introspective son Kiwi, ghost loving daughter Osceola, and gator wresting youngest Ava are still reeling from the untimely death of the family's matriarch who was also the undisputed star of their business enterprise. Each child has their own way of coping, or not coping, with the enormous void left by their mother's absence and the family is starting to splinter emotionally.

"Swamplandia!" is a novel infused with eccentricity. The quirks within the family itself are enough to populate a John Irving novel (and that's pretty quirky!). But like Irving, Russell has grounded her characters with an underlying sadness, yearning, and even hope that intimately connects the reader to their struggle. When a rival amusement park opens, everyone is desperate to keep the tourists rolling in. Kiwi sets off to the city and ends up working at the new attraction in an effort to raise funds for their diminishing empire.
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