by Karen Russell

Paperback, 2011

Call number




Vintage (2011), Edition: Reprint, 400 pages


Twelve year old Ava must travel into the Underworld part of the smamp in order to save her family's dynasty of Bigtree alligator wresting. 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)

Media reviews

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.
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So Ms. Russell has quite a way with words. She begins with the alligators’ “icicle overbites,” the visiting tourists who “moved sproingingly from buttock to buttock in the stands,” the wild climate (“Our swamp got blown to green bits and reassembled, daily, hourly”), and the Bigtrees’ various thoughts about the theme park’s gators, or Seths. Leaving the origin of that nickname as one of this novel’s endless lovely surprises, let’s just say that Chief Bigtree holds the reptiles in low regard. “That creature is pure appetite in a leather case,” he warns Ava. But when Ava tenderly adopts a newborn bright-red creature as her secret pet, she says, “the rise and fall of the Seth’s belly scales could hypnotize me for an hour at a stretch.”
A debut novel from Russell (stories: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, 2006) about female alligator wrestlers, ghost boyfriends and a theme park called World of Darkness.

User reviews

LibraryThing member brenzi
Karen Russell does an admirable job illustrating the dichotomy between the light and the dark, weaving them creatively and cleverly into this tale of the lives of the Bigtree family and their trashy tourist attraction Swamplandia! In its heyday, Swamplandia! drew tourists wanting to explore the Everglades and see the lovely and talented Hilola Bigtree dive into the alligator pit and, miraculously, swim to safety. Very early on in the story, she dies, leaving behind her grieving family including seventeen year old son Kiwi, sixteen year old daughter Osceola, and thirteen year old Ava. Upon Hilola’s demise, the popularity of the tourist attraction dramatically drops off and leaves the family fighting for survival. The Chief (Dad) leaves the island for previously scheduled ventures and to explore a new idea to revive Swamplandia!, then Kiwi leaves too to try to make money for the same reason and to get his high school degree. That leaves the two girls on their own, basically abandoned. Osceola has an imaginary lover, whom she escapes with and Ava tries to track down her delusional sister, accompanied by the Birdman, who shows up one day at the home, billing the chief for the work of ridding the place of buzzards.

To enjoy this book, I needed to suspend disbelief early on. Each family member is dealing with the loss of their mother and wife in their own way, but they all miss her terribly and it’s obvious that she was the glue that held the family together. Russell weaves lots of legend and folklore in telling the story and it worked quite well, even though I found myself many times asking, “Now is this really happening or not?”

The story is basically told from the points of view of Ava, on her slog through the swamp marshes and Kiwi as he joins the employ of Swamplandia’s arch rival on the mainland, “World of Darkness.” That title is no accident and Russell shows again and again the dark side of life and human nature. Her ability to counter this with absolutely incredible timing and word choice revealed her uncanny (and superb) writing ability. Kiwi’s night school instructor in action:

“She wrote her name on the board and underlined it with a defiant little flourish: VOILA ARENAS. ‘I will be your instructor,’ Voila Arenas said, chalking urgently, as if human life were an equation they were going to solve together in the next hour and twenty-two minutes. Facts screamed at meteoric speeds across the board.” (Page 165)

But it’s Mom’s death that so tremendously affects them all:

“He pictured his mom as a skinny girl his age drinking her Hula-Hula juice with no idea of the havoc that her death was going to cause, the violent way her death would rip through space. What a weird future awaited her in the past! (Or: what a weird future had survived her?) Alligators, his sisters, his father. Ninety pounds of her was going to sink an island.” (Page 248)

There is so much to think about in this book that it’s hard to cover everything that stood out. There was violence, some of it unwarranted in my opinion, especially one particularly violent act late in the story. She was beautifully making her point with suggestion, word-play, symbolism and satire. Other than that I loved the book and enjoyed my visit to Swamplandia!
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LibraryThing member Copperskye
Swamplandia! is a family-owned alligator theme park in the Florida Everglades. The struggle to keep it running comes to a grinding halt when the star performer dies and there is no longer a show to go on. The star, Hilola Bigtree, was also wife to the Chief and mother to Kiwi, Osceola, and Ava and without her to hold them together, the family starts to fall apart. The Chief goes off to find some “investors” and son, Kiwi, leaves for the mainland and finds work at the wonderfully satirical competition known as the World of Darkness. Young Ava goes off in search of her sister, who has left home to elope with her literal ghost of a boyfriend.

I loved this book and was easily sucked into caring for the fabulously appealing characters. It was a wonderfully told coming of age story with a great gothic feel, lots of humor at “The World”, and a bit of true darkness. There was also the bonus telling of the history of the damage man has wrought in the Everglades.

Quirky, with a great cover, and well deserving of the exclamation point in the title(!). 4.25 stars – points off for an overlong swamp journey with an unlikely Bird Man.
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LibraryThing member msf59
Ava Bigtree, the feisty thirteen year old, can kick things off: “My family, the Bigtree tribe of the Ten Thousand Islands, once lived on a hundred-acre island off the coast of southwest Florida, on the Gulf side of the Great Swamp. For many years, Swamplandia! was the Number One Gator-Themed Park and Swamp Café in the area.”
The Bigtrees consisted of Ava, her older brother and sister and her parents. They were not Native American, but white, with Ohio origins. Their alligator attraction is on the decline, quietly being muscled out by a much bigger competitor, the unholy “World of Darkness”.
This is a story about family. A family being broken apart and then their long grinding quest to reunite. It is not a perfect book, there is a draggy middle-part and some ugly revelations, but Russell is a very talented writer and shows much promise in her debut novel.
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LibraryThing member richardderus
The Book Report: The Bigtree family, two-generation swamp folks, have reached the end of their useful lives as purveyors of alligator wrestling and mild amusements to the tourists of fictional Loomis County, in the Ten Thousand Islands. Chief Sam Bigtree loses his wife Hilola, and after that the will to make his living there in the swamps with his three children, 17-year-old Kiwi, 16-year-old Osceola, and 10-year-old Ava. The book follows the misadventures of Ava, who is left alone on the island with the older, but seemigly tetched, Osceola, a girl who believes with all her heart that she is in touch with the spirit world, and specifically with a dead teenaged dredgeman from the 1930s called Louis Thanksgiving. Ava, older in spirit than Ossie, pokes fun at her sister's new beau the ghost. Things turn scary when Ossie, in the grips of what she insists is a spirit possession, abandons Ava and sets out for some Calusa Indian mounds which are locally believed to be a gateway to the underworld. Kiwi, meantime, has gone to "the mainland" (a place of fear and derision to the Bigtrees one and all) to work at the competing theme park. His journey from odd man out to local hero with self-confidence is about 1/3 of the book, told from third person limited PoV. Ava's hunt for Ossie through the swamp country, as aided by a tall, skinny stranger called the Bird Man, is the bulk of the book, told in first person as a flashback. What happens to Ava in the swamp is terrifying, what with the belief she has of traveling a spirit landscape into the Underworld in search of Ossie. What happens to Ossie on a similar journey is harrowing when we finally hear it from her mouth. All is finally put right in this weird and fractured family, the deus ex machina unfolding its long and shining arm to bring forth happiness and contentment. Of a very mitigated sort.

My Review: Well, now. Where to begin. Lushness and loveliness of language? Yes, there is that. Resonant Hero's Journey to the Gates of Hell, complete with safe return? Check. Obligatory abuse of women and children by older men? Sadly, that's here too, though God knows I wish it wasn't.

This is a first novel by a talented writer. I am sorry to say that it relies a little too much on currently fsahionable tropes to merit a good rating. I am sick unto death of novels by women that use adult males as bogeymen, from neglectful father to deceitful and abusive "helper." Stop it. It's boring. And, in case any of you women writers want to think outside your comfort zone for a second, what message is this sending to the girls in the world? Be afraid of men? And to the boys, you are intrinsically bad and evil and not to be trusted by women? Are these little details not immediately obvious to you, and if not, why not?

But the book in question is, as noted above, lush and lovely of language. Its phrases are smooth and silken in my mental ear. Its images are beautifully crafted. Its mythic structure is nicely handled, though I could have done completely without the whole Kiwi thing. One hopes that Karen Russell will see past this lazy co-opting of trendy shibboleths and create something as beautifully thought out as it is written.

Should you read this book? Yeah, well, they're your eyes, blink 'em at whatever makes you happy. Me, I'd go to the liberry to get the book, not shell out most of $30 to procure it.
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LibraryThing member mrstreme
Journey to Swamplandia and meet the Bigtree family - a clan of alligator wrestlers and theme park owners whose existence depends on gullible tourists desiring to see the unbelievable. The Bigtrees' lives turn upside down, however, when Hilola Bigtree dies from ovarian cancer. Hilola was the main attraction - a petite woman who could tape shut an alligator's mouth in 30 seconds and swan dive into a pit of alligators unscathed. While Hilola's death takes a toll on the park, it most profoundly affects her surviving family - her husband Chief and children Kiwi, Osceola and Ava.

With the park losing tourists and their home missing Hilola, the remaining Bigtree family begins a fast deterioration. Kiwi runs off the mainland to find work at a competing theme park to help pay off Swamplandia's debts, while Chief takes one of his long business trips. Osceola, enjoying newfound freedom, becomes fascinated with spiritualism and believes she can date ghosts - to the point where she runs off one night to elope with a ghost named Louis Thanksgiving.

That leaves 13-year-old Ava alone - until The Bird Man arrives. Allegedly hired to help locals clear off birds from their islands, Ava befriends The Bird Man, and together they begin a several-day journey to a place called The Underworld to find Osceola and bring her home.

The majority of the book is told from Ava's perpsective, and true to her age, she sees things in a naive way. As the story progresses, her naivete turns to scorching reality. The reader sees what's coming, but young Ava does not. The last 100 pages of Swamplandia! will have you turning the pages in dread, hoping your worst fears for this young heroine do not come true.

It would be easy to dismiss this book as too fantastic with ghost lovers and swamp living, but Karen Russell does a tremendous job making it all seem very real. Her ability to describe the people and places of Swamplandia suck you into a vortex that you don't want to leave until the last page is read. At the heart of it all, Swamplandia! is a coming of age tale that focuses on the love of family. With its gothic feel and Florida setting, I enjoyed this story and can't wait to read more by this talented young writer.
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LibraryThing member clfisha
[Swamplandia] by Karen Russell
Chaotic, evocative, utterly flawed, funny, shocking coming of age.

Swamplandia! A Floridian Gator park is in trouble, its star Hilola Bigtree champion alligator-wrestler has died. Ava, her 13 year old daughter, is determined to make it work but her father is AWOL, her brother defects to another theme park and her sister is besotted with a ghost.

“If you're short on time, that would be the two-word version of our story: we fell.

There is so much to love about this book but so much to make you wince. It's funny and dark (very dark in places) it captures the magic of life and also its hard, dreary cruelties. The language is superb. Yet it's deeply uneven, the pacing askew as after a slow yet entertaining start it splits into two ill-matched tales that kick you out so hard out of one into the other that you have to reset your head to immerse your self again (that narration shift!). It has too many ideas, promises too many things and tries to actually be a few but really all it does is lock you in, hard, to just one; a roller-coaster ride of a plot that is too late to get off once you find out its heart.

“I didn’t realize that one tragedy can beget another, and another — bright-eyed disasters flooding out of a death hole like bats out of a cave.”

The sets are evocative and touching on surreal; the superb Kafkaesque theme park of hell, the cloying, dank beauty of mosquito ridden swamp life. The characters are either lovable or irritating. The father makes me want to slap him, Kiwi's odd quirks and sudden maturity left me cold but then you get the complexity of Ava, Osceola's yearning, the mother's unearthly presence. The depiction of all that teenage naivety and human frailty is wonderful.

“No, I don’t have to tell a soul about this, I promised myself. When you are a kid, you don’t know yet that a secret, like an animal, can evolve. Like an animal, a secret can develop a self-preserving intelligence. Shaglike, mute and thick, a knowledge with a fur: your secret.”

For all its flaws I fell in love: I liked that the story allowed the reader an adults knowing, to read between childish thoughts, I loved the chills I got when the Birdman appeared, I laughed at the description of tourists, I even loved the abrupt ending.

It's like an old battered, much loved armchair with spilling stuffing, a broken spring and a weird smell. I cannot imagine it without these flaws, so inherent are they to what the book is. This is never the book you want it to be but there is nothing wrong in that.

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LibraryThing member Litfan
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. The switching of chapters between Ava and Kiwi’s perspective also felt a bit jarring at times; it felt you’d just gotten into one storyline when you were yanked back into another. The novel itself has a very original feel while also recalling some other great works of literature; Ava’s character is sometimes reminiscent of Scout from “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Unfortunately while there were moments I couldn’t put the book down, there were also moments I wanted to walk away from it forever, which made for a disjointed reading experience. Overall this scores major points for originality, but the originality is compromised by the uneven character and pace of the novel. It was worth the read, but didn’t quite live up to the hype for me.
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LibraryThing member maritimer
No matter what sort of universe a novelist creates, it needs an internal coherence that earns the trust of the reader, that makes us forget that this is a fiction. Swamplandia! never earned my trust, it always felt to me like a self-consciously and laboriously fabricated pastiche, its cartoonish characters not quite worth being taken seriously. It is a risk to stuff a story so full of goofiness and still expect its pathos to be feel real.… (more)
LibraryThing member kidzdoc
Thirteen year old Ava is the youngest member of the Bigtree tribe, who lives on an isolated south Florida island along the Gulf Coast, and operates the Swamplandia! theme park, which is dedicated to the 98 gators, or Seths, that live in its large tank. Ava's mother Hilola, the star of the daily performances, has died, leaving Ava and her two older siblings Ossie and Kiwi rudderless, as the show loses its appeal and fan base to the nearby World of Darkness amusement park. Their father, known to them and visitors as Chief, hatches a plan to revive the flagging show, and leaves the three to fend for themselves as the park temporarily suspends its operations.

The brainy but naïve Kiwi leaves for the mainland to earn money for the family and seek an education at Harvard. Ossie is influenced by the occult, and meets a ghost boyfriend who meets her in the surrounding swamps. Ava, the most grounded of the four Bigtrees, is left to care for the Seths and watch over the increasingly erratic behavior of her sister.

Swamplandia! was a disturbing novel, which was filled with characters that were too strange to be likeable, and plots that were too odd to be believable. The best parts of the book were the superb painting on the front of the dust jacket, and the enticing reviews on the back. Karen Russell is clearly a very talented writer, and many readers will enjoy this book far better than I did, so I would not want to discourage anyone from giving this book a try.
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LibraryThing member alexann
Swamplandia!, a second-rate theme park that has seen better days, could be considered the protagonist of Karen Russell's novel. The Bigtree clan's claim to fame has always been their 'gator wrestling beauties, but now Mom (the headliner) has died, Ossie has neither the desire nor chutzpah to wrestle, and Ava, although she has the heart of a person twice her size, is just too young to stir up much interest. The family scatters, each hoping to find the cure for their malaise. Pa totally loses focus, and sets off for the mainland leaving the children in charge. Brother Kiwi goes to work at the competing theme park ("World of Darkness"), Ossie elopes with her otherworldly boyfriend, and Ava takes her red alligator (or Seth, as they call them) and sets off in search of Ossie.
Russell's writing is amazing--like the swamp, it's dense, tangled and steamy. Listen to this, from p. 174: Outside I watched clouds sail over the neighboring houses, which stood on tall and lemon-gray legs like a flock of herons in the shallows. From the bottom of the ladder I watched the sun fall behind the many wooden legs of Stiltsville; you could almost hear the splash Soon afterward the river became a looking glass for stars."
Unfortunately the lovely writing doesn't do much to move the plot along and there are times when the reader just plain loses sight of it. This was not a compelling read for me; in fact, when I got to the last 30 pages it was all I could do to pick it up and finish it. A large disappointment for me!
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LibraryThing member BeckyJG
Swamplandia! is a novel by Karen Russell. Swamplandia! is also a place, one of Florida's Ten Thousand Islands, and a tourist attraction, and it's always written with an exclamation point, which never failed to amuse or touch me, depending on the context, throughout the book. Swamplandia! is rundown and hokey and pretty seedy, but the Bigtree family (a self-styled tribe with "not a drop of Seminole or Miccosuke blood") is inordinately proud of their outfit. It was once the "Number One Gator-Themed Park and Swamp Cafe in the area." It featured a Bigtree museum (housing family photographs and outgrown clothing, among other things), alligator breeding tanks (all of Swamplandia!'s alligators are called "Seth"), and an alligator wrestling show. The entire family--the Chief and his wife, the lovely Hilola, and their three children, Kiwi (the oldest, a boy), Osceola (a girl), and Ava, help keep the place running. Ava is even apprenticed to her mother, who is the star attraction. The Bigtrees are tightknit and proud and happy together in their isolation.

But when Hilola dies of ovarian cancer the family and all they've built together starts to unravel. First, the ethereal Osceola begins to commune with ghosts...then she starts dating them. Kiwi runs away to the city to seek his fortune (and an education); there he finds a job with the brand new World of Darkness attraction, a giant corporate competitor that doesn't even know Swamplandia! exists. And finally, the Chief heads off the island on a business trip, leaving the two girls alone. When Osceola "elopes" with her ghost boyfriend, Ava elicits the help of a stranger who calls himself the Birdman, to help her find Osceola.

What ensues is an eerie journey through the primeval swamp in which the Ten Thousand Islands are situated. Ava's journey through the swamp to find the underworld has been called magical, and it is. It is also fraught with dread, for the reader as much as for Ava herself. Who is this Birdman? Why in the world would he tell a little girl he could lead her to the underworld? Can this possibly end well?

Well. It does and it doesn't. But Swamplandia!, packed as it is with gorgeous and often clever writing (one of my favorites: all of the young employees of the World of Darkness simply refer to it as "the World," a fact which makes young Kiwi mentally squirm even as he finds himself taking up the practice), atmosphere of place so rich you could eat it with a spoon, and quirky but still well-developed characters, is truly a winner.
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LibraryThing member TheLostEntwife
I'm not sure what exactly I was expecting when I picked up Swamplandia! but I knew it would have something to do with alligators and the swamp lands of Florida.

I was right on both counts - but in addition to these elements I also got a story that just did not have quite as much punch as I was hoping it would have, which is disappointing.

While there really wasn't anything technically wrong with the story, the writing, the character development and all that jazz, I just didn't feel any sense of urgency or desire to sit down and actually finish the book. In fact, I had to force myself to get through the last half of it and it was the most disconnected, strange feeling I've felt in a while.

There is plenty of quirkiness in Swamplandia! but beneath the unique amusement "parks" and the strange characters of the Bigtree family, there was a story that was so heavily filled with sorrow; debt, death, rape, mental illness - it was all present.

So while I had high hopes and was so excited to finally crack the cover on this book, I came away disappointed and wishing that there could have been more - more about the shows, more about Swamplandia!'s good times then just the bad.
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LibraryThing member Milda-TX
I tried to like this, but the final straw was a graphic twist near the ending that was totally unnecessary and made me really mad that I read this book. (Really, it made me wonder if a woman truly wrote this story.) Gets a star for descriptions of Florida swampland - written so well that I know I never ever want to travel there.… (more)
LibraryThing member smg023
I hated this book. I didn't feel like it merits any of the attention it gets. It's disjointed, there's limited development for the characters or the plot, and the ending was disappointing. In theory I like this book; a family struggling past tragedy and spinning out of control only to regain its center and uncover family truth. Is everything happy? Absolutely not, but its something people go through to come out a little older, a little wiser, and a lot more clear eyed about the world.
However, the reality fell short. Nothing felt at all resolved, and while I would not presume that everything has to be wrapped up in a neat ending, I just felt like the ending was half-assed and sloppy. Also, how about never addressing the sexual assault or half a dozen other plot points? I don't care if you wrap everything up, but please address things you do mention. Don't just be like, "oh this important thing happened but we're never going to address it or talk about it or anything that would fulfill the reader/author contract" I just, I couldn't like this book, I felt cheated out of my time and out of a good story.
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LibraryThing member GeoffWyss
No stars. Only made it to page 10. There were one or two good sentences in those 10 pages, but it's otherwise thoroughgoing junk.
LibraryThing member sophroniaborgia
I am not usually a fan of the Southern-fried wackiness school of literature, so I was initially a bit wary of this book. But I was very pleasantly surprised. Sure, there are characters named Kiwi and Osceola, and the Bigtrees are a family of alligator wrestlers who have invented their own family mythology -- including a museum devoted to their lives at their own isolated theme park, Swamplandia! But Russell makes these conceits work by letting the reader see both the humor and the pathos of the Bigtrees and their situation. She pokes fun at their naïveté and strange notions, but she lets them be real people as well.

The biggest strength of the book is the author's powers of description. She evokes the hypnotic beauty of the Everglades so that it's easy for the reader to see it as a magical landscape, vast and strange, lush and overcrowded, nurturing and dangerous. Russell performs similar feats in describing the manmade world that is imposing itself on the Bigtrees' world -- the casinos, the housing developments, the entertainment complexes as bizarre and unexplainable as the Everglades itself.

That said (and trying not to spoil anything), there is one character that I could never get a handle on at all, and one major act involving this character I thought was completely out of place in this book and frankly unnecessary. Considering that there are almost no repercussions from this event, I'm not sure what the author really intended to do by including it. I thought the book could have been at least 50 pages shorter and avoided some of the middle sections that got a little repetitive and draggy by removing this character and having Ava set out on her journey alone. But even with this flaw, I still thought that for the most part the book was so well-written and such fun to read that it made up almost completely for such a big misstep. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member TinaV95
I will not recap the plot summary as there are plentiful reviews that do a fantastic job of that already.

Instead, I will give my somewhat muddled thoughts on this book...

I was left lukewarm by my reading of "Swamplandia!" I absolutely loved the premise of the novel and fell head over heels for the engaging narrator (13 year old Ava).

I was quickly immersed in the story and felt early on that I would be on the "love it" side of the "Swamplandia!" debate.

Indeed, the three Bigtree children were great characters. I loved older brother, Kiwi and his adventures into the real world. The adults in this novel were extremely disappointing to me. After the mother passes away, the father unravels, leaving the children alone. I have a philosophical problem with this from the get-go.... Then Russell brings in the "Bird Man" character. That's where I really lost my love of the book. I will NOT include any spoilers, but to say that I was disappointed and angry with the direction the plot took is to understate things a bit.

The ending was unreal and abrupt; and the last paragraphs really fell flat for me.

There were some really great moments, though... Here's what the super intellectual Kiwi had to say about his idea of Heaven (which pretty much sums up what most LT'ers probably think).

"Heaven, Kiwi thought, would be the reading room of a great library. But it would be private. Cozy. You wouldn't have to worry about some squeaky-shoed librarian turning the lights off on you or gauging your literacy by reading the names on your book spines, and there wouldn't be a single other patron. The whole place would hum with a library's peace, filtering softly over you like white bars of light." Now, throw in a wonderful comfy recliner and Russell has me pegged!!

In short - I started out a Swamplandia! fan, but ended up in the middle of the road. I did not hate it, but I was left wanting Russell to have taken the story in a wholly other direction.
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LibraryThing member hemlokgang
Great opening and it was downhill from there. Overblown metaphors, fable wannabe, disjointed plot. Just did not hold my interest.
LibraryThing member justinefrances
Approaching this book was like approaching a foreign country. The oppressive Florida swamplands, as twisting and tameless as the Amazonian wilderness and home to the Bigtree clan, have not been kind--as the book chronicles in great detail. The narrator, Ava Bigtree, is still a child who wants to help save the family home--a theme-park where the family raises and wrestles alligators, or "Seths", as they're known in the novel. Unfortunately, the narrative is thereby written from Ava's young and innocent point of view which became increasingly frustrating for me. (I actually found myself shaking the book when she made a very stupid decision which would have been obvious to an adult.) I felt an instant connection to bright, but awkward, Kiwi, however. Kiwi demonstrates the harsh way that the world can forsake an intelligent kid and how frustrating it can be when you're placed in a situation with no opportunity to distinguish yourself.

Either way, I'd say the last 100 pages of this book either make it or break it. If you pick it up, make sure you make it to the end--and you might not want to be in a public place when you get there.
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LibraryThing member andreablythe
I find myself torn as to just how I feel about this novel, and I don't know how to talk about it without throwing down spoilers, so here's your preemptive warning... SPOILERS TO APPEAR.

The Bigtree family begins to collapse, along with their alligator wrestling show, called Swamplandia!, following the death of their mother. Each family member responds to this in different ways. Chief, the father, launches into denial and seeks desperate means to save the show. Kiwi, the eldest, believing himself a genius, goes to the mainland in order to gain an education and save his family. Ossie, the middle child, begins to have romantic relationships with ghosts. And Ava, the youngest, wants to follow in her mother's footsteps by becoming the greatest alligator wrestler there is and in this way also save the Swamplandia! show.

My initial gut discomfort began early on. Right before picking up this book (and I mean literally the same day), I had been reading from the This Is Not Native blog, which explains how inappropriate it is for non-natives to be wearing headdresses and dressing like natives as if it were a costume. It's a participation in erasing the culture through stereotyping. So, to see right up front the non-native Bigtree family dressing as native, participating in redface, and claiming a heritage that isn't their own was instantly problematic for me. On the one hand, I understand that this aspect of their characters ties into the families tendency to create a fictional history for themselves, as well as their denial of reality in general. On the other hand, it shows how much mainstream society fails to recognize just how problematic it is for non-natives to be claiming native history and portraying it as homogenous, when it's not.

But as I continued reading, I found there was so much more to this book. I loved the world Russell presents with her rich descriptions of the swamp and its wildlife. It really comes alive, and I could almost picture myself there, slogging through the mud and swatting mosquitoes from my head. Even Kiwi's tortuous experience of the mainland with its own degrading realities was detailed and vivid. The World of Darkness theme park was a place both fascinating and horrifying, a true underworld. I loved Ossie's exploration of the supernatural. Whether what she experienced was real, or not, she believed to an extent that made Ava believe.

Meanwhile (and here's where the SPOILERS really start), when Ossie runs away with her ghost boyfriend, Ava seeks the held of a mystical Bird Man (someone who can talk to birds and play pied piper to get them off your property), who takes her deep in the swamp in search of the underworld, where her sister was thought to have fled. I was enraptured with Ava's journey to the underworld with the Bird Man.

I can't even begin to express my disappointment when I found out that the underworld was not real and the Bird Man was not mystical. The world was just the world, and the Bird Man was just an ordinary man who does what men who lead little girls out into the wild are likely to do.

My heart was broken by this. Russell makes the magic, as seen through Ava's eyes, seem so real, and the collapse into reality is so crushing. In a sense, I see how this reflects the Russell's skill, because my own emotional experience matched hers. I didn't want to see reality anymore than Ava wanted to see reality. What else would a strange man be than just a man? What else would the swamp be other than just the swamp? Both Ava and I wanted to believe she would find both her sister and the ghost of her mother, and we both should have known better, and god, ouch. That was a literary punch to the gut, if I ever read one. Just writing about it now makes me want to cry (I almost threw the book across the room).

The downfall was my disappointment was so great, I couldn't get back into the same love for the story I was feeling before. I kinda wish her reality hadn't been so brutal, and that some magic could have been recovered.

I got over it enough to continue reading, and am glad I did, because I like where the story went from there and how the family came together, despite it all.

The final ending (by which I mean, the last sentence), however, didn't have enough of an impact for me. I read that last paragraph three times to try to get the sense of conclusion, of summing up, even if it's a "life goes on" or "the story doesn't end" kind of thing, but it just didn't resonate. I'm sure some will disagree, but, yeah.

So, I guess my final analysis is that I really liked it with some strong reservations.
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LibraryThing member Pennydart
The Bigtree family—“The Chief”, his wife Hilola Jane, and their three children Kiwi, Osecola, and Ava—live on a small island in the Everglades, where they run an alligator-wrestling theme park, Swamplandia! But their sheltered world falls apart Hilola dies and shortly afterwards a new amusement park, World of Darkness, opens on the mainland, stealing most of Swamplandia’s business. The Chief leaves to try and find donors who can provide a much-needed injection of cash, Kiwi takes a job at The World of Darkness, and Ossie falls in love with a ghost named Louis Thanksigiving. When she disappears as well, 13-year-old Ava sets off with Bird Man, a local man who dresses in a coat of bird feathers, to look for the Underworld, where she hopes to find both Ossie and her dead mother.

Russell’s prose is masterful. Here she is describing Kiwi’s somewhat pretentious attempts at using a big vocabulary: “He had been bungling his SAT building-block words for months now—he pronounced ‘fatuous’ so that it fit the meet of ‘SpaghettiOs’.” But despite her ability to create clever and surprising turns of phrase like this, the book in the end was tedious—so tedious that I abandoned it about 2/3 of the way through.
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LibraryThing member keristars
At least half of Swamplandia! is a love-letter to the wilds of Florida, and I don't mind. In fact, I love it. I'm a native myself and adore the region - reading this book made me reflect on how much I love this place where I grew up, where I've lived all my life. When Russell describes the gator hollows, or the sawgrass marshes, or the circling buzzards, I know these things. I felt the descriptions calling to me, reminding me of my love, and I felt Russell's love in them. And for that alone, this is a wonderful book to me.

The other half of Swamplandia! makes it more than just Florida. It is about grief and loss and how a family reacts to the sudden and irreversible changes that besiege them and all they know: the death of their mother, the loss of their livelihood, the encroaching pavement and cinder-block of civilization into the wilds of home. I was especially struck by Kiwi's story, how he feels alone and different amongst his family on their island, but equally alone and outcast when he goes to the mainland and the World of Darkness, the belly of the beast, in order to earn money to save their home.

The biggest complaint I have about the book is the interlude about 1/3 of the way through when Ava recounts the story of Louis Thanksgiving. Louis T. is a "ghost" that has possessed her older sister Osceola, who has reacted to their mother's death by becoming entranced by the occult and the Underworld. Honestly, I just didn't care about Louis T., whether he really was a ghost or just a figment of Ossie's imagination. The story was interesting enough for the light it sheds on the history of Floridian pioneers in the 1930s, but as someone who already knew much of it, I just wanted to get back to the here-and-now story of the Bigtrees.

Overall, I know this book won't appeal to a lot of people, maybe most. Even for me, the largest part of why I love the book as much as I do is the aforementioned love-letter to Florida. Russell has some wonderful turns of phrase, and a sly humor that underlies much of Kiwi's time in Loomis, or Ava's (innocent) descriptions of their sister's behavior, and some scenes are palpable with the slow build-up of tension behind the veneer of beautiful words. But, on the whole, there's something about the book that doesn't quite work. If it weren't for my bias towards the language and the setting, I don't think I would have enjoyed it nearly as much as I did, though the only thing I can really point to as problematic is the Louis T. interlude.
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LibraryThing member jasonlf
A very good book, well worth reading, but somehow falls short of astounding or perfection. It tells the story of the (self-named) Bigtree family who live in a Florida swamp/island and operate Swamplandia!, a decaying alligator wrestling attraction. The story opens with "The Beginning of the End" as a slick new attraction opens on the mainland, threatening Swamplandia! The father goes off to fix the situation, his eldest son runs off to work at the new attraction, and the youngest daughter goes on a journey to the "underworld" to find her sister who she thinks has been kidnapped by a ghost.

An aura of magic lies over the entire book but at times the stark, depressing reality that these dreams and delusions float over is exposed. In the end, it is an unconventional family story that deals in only partial and ambiguous triumphs of reality over fantasy.
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LibraryThing member MsNick
Unbelievable and predominantly unlikeable characters combined with overdone, klunky prose made this a book that highly disappointed me after all of the praise it garnered. Yuck.
LibraryThing member jorgearanda
Swamplandia! is a Florida tourist trap, and the Bigtrees are the fake-Native American family that runs it. When tragedy and decay strike, two Bigtrees try to save the family by travelling to the Florida underworld---in one case, a hot, swampy, mystical hell, in the other, the underbelly of a corporate amusement park. But though Swamplandia! promises a lot, it drags on for far too long, the novelty of its voice wears off, and the ending leaves a bad, unsatisfactory aftertaste.… (more)




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