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A little dark but a LOT of fun: Swamplandia!

by Emma on June 15, 2011

in Books

When I first heard about Swamplandia! I knew I wanted to read it. Set in the Florida Everglades the story revolves around a family that owns a gator-wrestling park. How cool does that sound?! And I read that the main character was a 13-year old girl, and I am usually quite the sucker for child-heros. :)

What I hadn’t expected was a book filled with so much surreal, almost magical encounters with death, ghosts, red-colored gators and boat rides to the underworld. And yet this book is so grounded in the dirty reality of the Bigtree family’s situation that it never verges on cheesy or over-the-top. The story introduces us to the family’s life as they own a (mostly) successful alligator theme park, where they sell concessions, wrestle gators, have a museum of old family artifacts and their mother headlines the show with her swimming with the seth’s (alligators) act. Eva, our young protagonist is her understudy and biggest fan. But we soon watch the family struggle, falter and ultimately come apart at the seems after the mother’s early death due to cancer.

The novel reads almost like two books, one with Eva desperately trying to pick up the pieces and save Swamplandia! from bankrupcy, and her sister from leaving home to elope with her ghost boyfriend. While other chapter are narrated by Kiwi, the older brother who leaves the family’s island to seek employment and his GED on the mainland, trying to save Swamplandia! in his own way. The two different perspectives provide a kind of break for the reader from the other life, but for me it took a while before I started to enjoy the chapters narrated by Kiwi, and even find the subtle humor in them.

My favorite scene in the whole book is the first time Eva swims with the alligators, it’s such a scary and thrilling read!

This is the first full novel written by Karen Russell, and I absolutely adored it. I will definitely be checking out any other book she authors in the future. Her vivid use of language and setting were, um, awesome. I loved this book.


Sara S. June 15, 2011 at 6:45 pm

As a born and raised Floridian I’m not sure I could handle this book. I am already kinda petraified of water. But I can say that if you ever visit the Orlando area that you should make a trip to Gatorland for some good ol’ hick fun.

Kristin June 15, 2011 at 9:10 pm

My daughter is looking for a new book, what age do you think this is
appropriate for? She just finished the 100cupboards series &
loved it.

Emma June 16, 2011 at 1:35 am

I’m not sure how old your daughter is, or what you are comfortable with but there are a few swear words and a rape scene in this book. I would still recommend it for high-school age (again, this depends on your level of comfort with these types of issues) as it is a wonderful read and very well written. But those two things might be something to consider.

Kristin June 16, 2011 at 3:10 am

Thanks Emma :-) my dd is 15 so sounds like a good one that will lead to good discussions.

Rebekah June 15, 2011 at 9:13 pm

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is on my short term to-read list. Swamplandia looks pretty promising too. I am trying to get back into reading some fiction after a run of great non-fiction reading.

Emma June 16, 2011 at 1:36 am

Oh? You have my ear, what non-fiction were you reading? I really ought to read more non-fiction myself.

Rebekah June 18, 2011 at 7:13 pm

I have been reading anything and everything by Sarah Vowell and also John Hodgman. Vowell writes about American History in a funny and engaging way and Hodgman is just plain silly and strange but with a lot of heart. I also read about spirituality, crafts and lots of humor books.

Alex June 15, 2011 at 9:59 pm

Now I’m even more excited to read this book – it’s been on my To Read List for a while. I’m currently battling through Lord of the Rings (you gotta read it once, right?) so this sounds like the perfect antidote.

Beca June 16, 2011 at 5:49 am

Emma! For the book club Sarah (Sadie Designs) Carla, and I are hosting, I chose her other book for the July book! If you’re interested in reading St Lucy’s Home Raised by Girls. I think it may have come before Swamplandia, but the first short story is about the girls.

Check out the book club, if you want.


Beca June 16, 2011 at 5:51 am

Whoa, I totally messed up that book title. I type too fast and don’t grammar check.. errr. st lucys home for girls raised by wolves! Ha!

Lucy June 16, 2011 at 11:11 am

Oooh, I can’t wait to read this – I read St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (the same characters are in a short story in that) a couple of years ago and loved it. If you haven’t already read it you might like Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (it’s the same kind of genre, though maybe a teensy bit darker).

P.S. I found your blog through Elsie’s and I must say it’s quickly becoming one of my must reads… love the vegetarian recipes. x

Andrea June 17, 2011 at 10:14 am

I just saw this cover yesterday and was intrigued, I’m so glad to hear its good – I’m putting it on my summer reading list.

Kimbercrafts June 17, 2011 at 4:22 pm

This book sounds very interesting and unique – I just may need to add it to my summer reading list!

Jaclyn T June 20, 2011 at 2:25 am

I have to read this soon! I hadn’t heard of it before reading this post, so thank you for your review!

Olga June 24, 2011 at 5:34 pm

This bool sounds like it’s right up my alley. Adding to list…

Jenn June 28, 2011 at 10:45 pm

I heard the author on NPR a few months ago when she read a few pages from the book, you review definitely makes me want to read it! :) Thanks for the suggestion!