Synopses & Reviews
From the celebrated twenty-nine-year-old author of the everywhere-heralded short-story collection St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
("How I wish these were my own words, instead of the breakneck demon writer Karen Russell's....Run for your life. This girl is on fire!" — Los Angeles Times Book Review
) comes a blazingly original debut novel that takes us back 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 #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 and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief.
Against a backdrop of hauntingly fecund plant life animated by ancient lizards and lawless hungers, Karen Russell has written an utterly singular novel about a family's struggle to stay afloat in a world that is inexorably sinking. An arrestingly beautiful and inventive work from a vibrant new voice in fiction.
"Few novelists debut with as much hearty recommendation as Russell, a New Yorker 20-under-40 whose cunning first novel germinates a seed planted in her much-loved collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. We return to Swamplandia!, the once-thriving Florida tourist attraction where the Bigtree clan Ava, Ossie, Kiwi, and the Chief wrestles alligators. After the death of mother Hilola the park's star alligator wrestler Ava, the youngest Bigtree, takes her place in the spotlight while her sister, Ossie, elopes with a ghostly man named Louis Thanksgiving, and brother Kiwi winds up sweeping floors at Swamplandia!'s competition. Worst of all is the disappearance of the Chief, spurring Ava to embark upon a rescue mission that will take her from the Gulf of Mexico to the gates of hell, occasionally assisted by an unlikely extended family that includes the geriatric Grandpa Sawtooth, the Bird Man, and a tiny red alligator with the potential to save the park. Russell's willingness to lend flesh and blood to her fanciful, fantastical creations gives this spry novel a potent punch and announces an enthralling new beginning for a quickly evolving young author. (Feb.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright PWyxz LLC)
"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." Booklist (starred review)
"Quirky, outlandish fiction: To say it's offbeat is to seriously underestimate its weirdness." Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Karen Russell, a native of Miami, has been featured in The New Yorker’s debut fiction issue and on The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 list, and was chosen as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. In 2009, she received the 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation. Three of her short stories have been selected for the Best American Short Stories volumes. She is currently writer-in-residence at Bard College.
Reading Group Guide
1. Now that you’ve read the novel, go back and reread the epigraph. Why do you think Russell chose this quote?
2. Some of these characters first appeared in the story “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” in Russell’s collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Have you read that story? How does it compare to the novel?
3. “‘Tradition is as important, kids,’ Chief Bigtree liked to say, ‘as promotional materials are expensive.’” (page 5) Did the Chief show this in his actions? Which of the Bigtree tribe members paid the most respect to tradition?
4. How did Chief’s myth-making affect his children? How might things have been different if he’d been more truthful?
5. On page 28, Chief introduces his theory of Carnival Darwinism, which he thought would save Swamplandia! How might it have been successful? Why wasn’t it?
6. Where else does the notion of evolution come into play?
7. Belief—in Carnival Darwinism, in ghosts—plays a large role in the novel. What prompts Ossie’s beliefs? Ava’s? Where is the turning point in their belief systems?
8. Why do you think Ossie sees Louis and other ghosts, but never Hilola?
9. What does Ava’s red alligator represent? And the melaleuca trees?
10. Why do you think Russell interrupted the novel for the story of the Dredgeman’s Revelation? What exactly is the “revelation”?
11. There are biblical references throughout the book, especially in the World of Darkness sections. Why does Russell include them?
12. How do Kiwi’s actions affect his family? What do we learn via his sojourn on the mainland?
13. On page 146, the Bird Man tells Ava, “Nobody can get to hell without assistance, kid.” How does this compare to the quote from Dante that opens the chapter? What does it tell us about his character?
14. The three Bigtree children are innocent for their ages. Which one matures the most over the course of the novel?
15. The Bird Man calls the ending of the Dredgeman’s Revelation “a vanishing point.” (page 176) What does he mean by that?
16. Both the Bird Man and Vijay act as guides to a Bigtree sibling. How does each approach his role?
17. When Ava said “I love you” to the Bird Man on page 196, what did you expect to happen as a result?
18. On page 198, Ava recites a credo: “I believe the Bird Man knows a passage to the underworld. I believe that I am brave enough to do this. I have faith that we are going to rescue Ossie.” Was she right about any of this?
19. Did the Bird Man believe in the underworld, or did he have an ulterior motive all along?
20. How does Kiwi’s use of language change during the novel? What does it reflect?
21. Like the Dredgeman, several of the Bigtrees have revelations. Whose is the most surprising?
22. What is the significance of the Mama Weeds passage? What do we learn from it?
23. Why doesn’t Ava ever tell anyone what the Bird Man did?
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's discussion of Swamplandia!, the eagerly awaited first novel by Karen Russell, acclaimed author of the short story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.
Review A Day
"Writer Karen Russell is on record stating that, much as she loves reading realist fiction, she couldn't 'write a moving tale about a family of struggling car salesmen in Detroit,' even if 'somebody held a gun to my head.'
'But a family of alligator wrestlers in a mythic swamp? That,' she continued, 'I can do.'
Now she has, in Swamplandia!
, a weird and wonderfully inventive first novel that also happens to be a moving, very real tale about a struggling family." Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
(Read the entire Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review