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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I would call this book average at the best. The story is too slow and it never completely grabs you. You never fell any belonging to any of the characters even when they are in trouble.
I personally did not like the language of the book. The adjectives, similes and the metaphors were alien to me. I will not recommend this book.
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.
Swamplandia! is the story of an unconventional family, the self-made Bigtree Tribe of Florida. The family tradition of reinvention originated with the paternal grandfather, who left his troubles and debts behind in Ohio to become “Sawtooth Bigtree.” Now the current Chief Bigtree presides over his three children, 17-year-old Kiwi, 16-year-old Osseola, and Ava, the youngest at 13. Swamplandia is the name the family has given to both their Everglades island home, and the gator theme park that is their livelihood. These children are rare hothouse flowers raised and “home-schooled” in this idiosyncratic environment, where they think nothing of fleecing a few tourists, but are actually incredible naïve in the ways of the broader world.
I still might have found my quirky comic novel within these pages, but this family has just lost its heart. Hilola Bigtree, beloved mother and star attraction of Swamplandia, has succumbed to cancer at the age of 36. Now the tourists are gone, and the family is falling apart. The Chief clearly loves his children, but they’re all limping along in an environment of benign neglect without proper meals, clean laundry, adequate supervision, or a plan to save their faltering home.
The family is fracturing. First, Kiwi absconds to the mainland, with a vague plan to try to save the family home. Next the Chief leaves on one of his extended mainland “business trips,” the first since Hilola’s passing. Ossie is left behind to mind Ava, but she has been behaving more and more erratically, and in fact, it is lion-hearted Ava who must protect the older sister who claims to be dating a ghost. When Ossie fails to return home one night, Ava knows that she must track her eloping sister through the swamp.
It is more than a hundred pages in when the novel’s most enigmatic character is introduced. The mysterious Bird Man will serve as Ava’s guide through the swamp and will ferry her to the gates of the Underworld to save her sister. And as Ava and the Bird Man make their journey, the reader is left to wonder: Is he her salvation, or just another predator in the swamp?
Karen Russell’s writing is truly noteworthy. She brings her oddball characters fully to life. Chapters are narrated alternately by Ava and Kiwi, each of whom has a rich internal life. Her prose is uncommon and evocative:
“Out here the mosquitoes were after me for red gallons—you could see clouds of them hanging above the grassland. I’m sure they are still out there hovering like that, like tiny particles of an old, dissolved appetite, something prehistoric and very scary that saturates the air of that swamp. A force that could drain you in sips without ever knowing what you had been, or seeing your face.”
The above quote is a great example of the menacing tone that makes up a good part of the book, but other sections are magical or haunting, or, yes, humorous—most notably in the chapters dealing with Kiwi’s exile to the mainland theme park, The World of Darkness, which is an absolute hoot in its over-the-top ridiculousness.
The first third of this novel introduced us to this clan of ersatz Indians and their unusual world. It was enjoyable, but I was mildly disappointed in the novel’s failure to meet my expectations. Things started to pick up in the middle. My interest and curiosity were piqued once the action got going. By the final third of the novel I was turning pages at a lightning pace, just hoping that each member of this endangered tribe would somehow find their way home. Swamplandia! was never what I expected, but it was awfully good.