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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.

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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.

Winner of the 2012 New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award

One of the New York Times Book Review's Top 10 Books of 2011

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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.)
From the Publisher
Praise for Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!
“Karen Russell is young and talented, and has been given just about every age-appropriate honor there is—Best Young American Novelists, 20 Under 40, 5 Under 35. With her debut novel, though, she’s leaving the kids’ table forever. The bewitching Swamplandia! is a tremendous achievement for anyone, period. . . . Effortless prose and [a] small, beautifully drawn cast of characters . . . as densely organic as the swamp in which it is set.”
—Keith Staskiewicz, Entertainment Weekly, A–
“If no such thing as the Great Floridian Novel already existed, consider it done. Karen Russell, anointed by Granta and The New Yorker as one our most brilliant young writers, fulfills the promise of her fiercely original 2006 story collection [with] a novel of idiosyncratic and eloquent language; hyperreal, Technicolor settings; and larger-than-life characters who are nonetheless heartbreakingly vulnerable and keenly emotional. It’s a tour de force. . . . Near-hallucinatory in its intensity—not only in it’s dark, sad, enthralling plot, but in its descriptions of the swamp: gorgeous, precise, lush poetry. The book becomes sharply suspenseful as Russell’s fearless eye and voice go deep into the swamps of adolescence, of what it is to lose a mother, and of Florida itself.”
—Kate Christensen, Elle
“Karen Russell is a fine purveyor of the unexpected, humorous and razor-sharp description . . . Exactly often enough, her vivid description gives way to a deftly inserted truth. . . . Swamplandia! flashes brilliantly—holographically—between a surreal tale brimming with sophisticated whimsy and an all-too-realistic portrait of a quaint but dysfunctional family under pressure in a world that threatens to make them obsolete. . . . Ava is a true contemporary heroine and not easily forgotten.”
—Pam Houston, More
“This impressively self-assured debut novel may bet the best book you’ll ever read about a girl trying to save her family’s alligator-wrestling theme park.”
—Karen Holt, O, The Oprah Magazine
“Winningly told . . . rambunctious.”
—Megan O’Grady, Vogue
“Russell does what she does best here—presenting a world we recognize and imbuing it with magical mysticism—and does it brilliantly. The surreal is never a prop, and there’s a heart to the writing that goes beyond the sensational. The novel’s backbone is in the nuanced intricacies of its characters, in their hopes and fears whether tangible or touchingly naïve. . . . Russell’s sentences are well-crafted miniatures building to create a world so enchanted that we are both comforted and devastated to realize that it’s our own. Swamplandia! is a dizzying cocktail of heartbreak and humor, a first novel worthy of celebration.”
—Laurie Ann Cedilnik, Bust
“[A] cunning first novel. . . . 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.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Brilliant, funny, original . . . also creepy and sinister . . . Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! is every bit as good as her short stories promised it would be. This book will not leave my mind.”
—Stephen King
“A wonderfully fertile novel by an unfairly talented writer.”
—Joseph O’Neill, author of Blood-Dark Track: A Family History
“Karen Russell’s worlds, like her protagonists, are fierce and wondrous and hilarious and heartbreaking, and Swamplandia! features everything a reader could want, from bears with bad rhythm to Live Chicken Thursdays to as visceral and dazzling a portrait of south Florida’s now almost destroyed wilderness as you’re likely to read. But mostly it’s a gorgeous and wrenching portrait of sibling love in all its helpless and furious and panicked indefatigability, and of one girl’s determination to do what she can to hold what’s left of her family together.”
—Jim Shepard, author of Like You’d Understand Anyway
“I would cross even the most crocodile and yellow-fever infested swamp just to spend an hour with Russell’s prose. She has an imagination like Calvino, an ear like Tennyson, a heart like Carson McCullers, an observing intelligence like Marianne Moore; what I really mean to say is she is a strange and wonderful writer like none other I know.”
—Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances
“Lavishly imagined and spectacularly crafted. . . . 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, Booklist (starred review)
“A love song to paradise and innocence lost. This wildly imaginative debut novel . . . delivers.”
—Sally Bissell, Library Journal (starred review)
Praise for St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
“How I wish these were my own words, instead of breakneck demon writer Karen Russell’s, whose stories begin, in prose form, where the jabberwocky left off. . . . Run for your life.  This girl is on fire.”
—Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Already a master of tone and texture and an authority on the bizarre, Karen Russell writes with great flair and fearlessness. . . . The way Russell beds mundane detail in surrealist settings makes her work exceptionally evocative. . . . Russell’s astonishing gifts augur well for a novel of maturity and complexity.  It’s only a matter of time.”
—Carlo Wolff, The Denver Post
“Karen Russell is a storyteller with a voice like no other. . . . Laced with humor and compassion.”
—Lauren Gallo, People
“One of the strangest, creepiest, most surreal collections of tales published in recent memory. . . . Her writing bristles with confidence.”
—June Sawyers, San Francisco Chronicle
“Twenty-five-year-old wunderkind Karen Russell . . . proves herself a mythologist of the darkest and most disturbing sort. . . . Ten unforgettable, gorgeously imaginative tales.”
—Jenny Feldman, Elle
“The landscapes of Russell’s imagination are magical places. . . . [A] casual blend of insight and, well, whimmerdoodle. . . . The fablelike settings Russell invents throw the very real absurdity of childhood into relief. . . . Charming and imaginative. . . . [O]ne can sense Russell’s enthusiasm and playfulness, both of which she has in spades.”
—Francesca Delbanco, Chicago Tribune
“With this weird, wondrous debut, 25-year-old Russell blows up the aphorism ‘Age equals experience.’  She also suggests ‘Write what you know’ is similarly useless, unless she’s a girl living on a Florida farm, two brothers who dive for the ghost of their dead sister, and children at a sleep disorder camp.  These stories are part Flannery O’Connor, part Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and entirely her own.”
—Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, Entertainment Weekly
“Endlessly inventive, over-the-top, over-the-edge stories, all delivered in the most confident, exquisitely rambunctious manner.  Fabulous fun.”
—Joy Wililams
“Edgy-lit lovers will adore this debut short-story collection set in imaginative venues like icebergs.”
“Hallelujah!  Karen Russell’s work sweeps the ground from beneath your feet and replaces it with something new and wondrous, part Florida swampland, part holy water. A confident, auspicious, uncomfortable debut.”
—Gary Shteyngart
“Most writers her age haven’t yet matched Russell’s chief achievement: honing a voice so singular and assured that you’d willingly follow it into dark, lawless territory. Which, as it happens, is exactly where it leads us.”
—Caroline McCloskey, Time Out New York
“This book is a miracle.  Karen Russell is a literary mystic, channeling spectral tales that surge with feeling.  A devastatingly beautiful debut by a powerful new writer.”
—Ben Marcus
“In spare but evocative prose, the 25-year-old conjures a weird world of young misfits and ghosts in the Everglades.”
—Jenny Comita, W Magazine
“A marvelous book in the tradition of George Saunders and Katherine Dunn.”
—Quentin Rowan, New York Post
“Karen Russell’s fresh and original voice makes this a stunning collection to savor.”
“Karen Russell’s startlingly original collection features graceful and seductive prose that transports the reader into surreal and yet utterly plausible realms.”
—Harvey Freedenberg, Bookpage
“Russell makes her sparkling debut with these 10 curious, sophisticated and whimsical stories.”
—Lindsey Hunter, OK! Weekly
“Russell’s first story collection is a thing of beauty. . . . This startingly original set of stories, which feels as though it might have been written by Lemony Snicket and Margaret Atwood, is nto to be missed, and author Russell, whose fiction debuted in The New Yorker and who was chosen by New York magazine as one of 25 People To Watch Under 25,’ is poised to become a literary powerhouse.  Recommended.”
—Amy Ford, Library Journal
“25-year-old wunderkind Karen Russell—whose house-afire prose has already lit up the pages of Granta and The New Yorker—proves herself a mythologist of the darkest and most disturbing sort. . . . [U]nforgettable, gorgeously imaginative tales. . . . With a flair for transforming common aspects of local culture—from gators to sand-sledding—into wondrous miracles, Russell also cuts straight to the heart of adolescence.”
—Jenny Feldman, Elle
“Armed with a subversive sense of humor and a wicked turn-of-phrase, a young writer sets out to redefine the Southern gothic.”
—Brendan Lemon, Interview
“This unusual, haunting collection confirms that the hype is well deserved. Like the people in Gina Oschner’s stories, Russell’s characters are caught between overlapping worlds—living and dead, primal and civilized, animal and human—and the adolescent narrators are neither children nor adults. . . . [U]nforgettable. Russell writes even the smallest details with audacious, witty precision. . . . Her scenes deftly balance mythology and the gleeful absurdity of Monty Pytho with a darker urgency to acknowledge the ancient, the infinite, and the inadequacies of being human. . . . Original and astonishing, joyful and unsettling, these are stories that will stay with readers.”
—Gillian Engberg, Booklist (starred review)
“[Karen Russell] merges the satirical spirit of George Saunders with the sophisticated whimsy of recent animated Hollywood film. . . . Russell has powers of description and mimicry reminiscent of Jonathan Safran Foer . . . and her macabre fantasies structurally evoke great Southern writers like Flannery O’Conner.”
—Publishers Weekly
Library Journal
The Tamiami Trail, a two-lane road connecting the wealthy city of Naples with bustling, multicultural Miami, cuts through a river of grass known as the Florida Everglades. This wonderfully unique combination of wildwood hammock and cypress slough has been home to the mound-building Calusa, then the Seminoles, and now the quirkiest, most delightful group of all, the fictitious Bigtrees. A once-thriving destination for blue-haired tourists from the Midwest, Swamplandia boasted airboat rides and alligator wrestling until the death of the feature performer, matriarch Hilola Bigtree. The grieving chief fails to recognize that his kids are suffering, too. Osceola, the oldest daughter, communes with the dead. Kiwi, her brother, makes a pact with the devil, the Disney-esque attraction, World of Darkness, and precocious Ava secretly nurtures a rare red alligator, hoping to revive the family business. Like a kinder, gentler Carl Hiaasen, Russell manages to skewer all the Florida bad guys—Big Sugar, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Casino Gaming Commission—while writing a love song to paradise and innocence lost. VERDICT This wildly imaginative debut novel, coming on the heels of the short story collection St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, delivers on Russell's status as one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists. A phantasmagorical tale of teens left on their own to battle their demons, mixed with a brief history of the Sunshine State, Russell's book will appeal to young adults as well as their folks. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/10.]—Sally Bissell, Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Ft. Myers, FL
Kirkus Reviews

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.

Ava Bigtree is experiencing some hard times in making it through her childhood. Her mother Hilola, a world-class alligator wrestler at the family tourist compound Swamplandia! (which Russell always writes with an exclamation point), died of cancer, so business has fallen off considerably. Perhaps even more significant, World of Darkness recently opened and started draining away customers from Swamplandia! Because the Bigtree family business was on an island off the coast of Florida, no one in the family had much experience with mainland life. Ava, who narrates roughly half the book, would like to follow in her mother's alligator-wrestling footsteps, but her age prevents her from reviving the business. Her brother Kiwi joins the forces of evil, as it were, by taking a job at World of Darkness—one of its big draws is the Leviathan, a ride in which tourists slide down a seemingly saliva-soaked tongue of a giant whale—but also by getting the education he lacked on the island. Kiwi hopes to send money home but finds after meeting all the exploitative fees charged by his boss that he has almost nothing left. Ava's sister Ossie (short for Osceola—she's named after the Florida Indian tribe) starts paying close attention to the results of a Ouija board, finds an old dredge in the swamps near her home, and goes off with the ghost of Louis Thanksgiving, who had died in the swamps years before. Meanwhile, the patriarch of the Bigtree clan, known as the Chief, abandons the whole sorry business and finds a job at a mainland casino. The narrative becomes a quest of sorts as Ava, accompanied by a bizarre character called the Bird Man, poles through the swamps in a mythic attempt to locate her sister. Throughout this search, Russell evokes archetypal journeys through underworlds and across the Styx.

Quirky, outlandish fiction: To say it's offbeat is to seriously underestimate its weirdness.

Emma Donoghue
Vividly worded, exuberant in characterization, the novel is a wild ride: Russell has style in spades…If Russell's style is a North American take on magical realism, then her commitment to life's nitty-gritties anchors the magic; we are more inclined to suspend disbelief at the moments that verge on the paranormal because she has turned Swamplandia! into a credible world.
—The New York Times Book Review
Janet Maslin
Ms. Russell knows how to use bizarre ingredients to absolutely irresistible effect…For all its gorgeously eerie omens …Swamplandia! stays rooted in the Bigtree family's emotional reality. Take away the wall-to-wall literary embellishments, and this is a recognizable story, if not a familiar one. But there's no need to take those embellishments away. They are an essential, immensely enjoyable part of this novel's strange allure, and they have been rendered with commanding expertise, right down to the most tangential details…The book's a marvel…
—The New York Times
Ron Charles
Russell has perfected a tone of deadpan wit and imperiled innocence that I find deeply endearing…you never know when a riptide of tragedy might pull away the humor of Swamplandia! As in her short-story collection, [Russell's] charted out a strange estuary where heartbreak and comedy mingle to produce a fictional environment that seems semi-magical but emotionally true.
—The Washington Post
The Barnes & Noble Review

From Paul Di Filippo's "THE SPECULATOR" column on The Barnes & Noble Review

To warp Tolstoy's famous line: "Sane families are all alike; every crazy family is crazy in its own way."

The literary trope of a tightly bound family or pseudo-family of grotesque, outré and outcast individuals operating as performers, or denizens of some cloistered Gothic environment, who serve in their eccentric manner as a symbolic commentary on society at large, has a long and prestigious lineage. Today the tradition is handsomely capped by Karen Russell's gonzo debut novel, Swamplandia!

We might peg the first truly modern such instance to Tod Browning's 1932 film Freaks, with its cast of pinheads, little people, and amputees, all allied against the "normal" world. Three years later Charles Finney's The Circus of Dr. Lao, introduced the supernatural elements which often appear in subsequent treatments of the theme. Our next landmark, from 1946,William Lindsay Gresham's Nightmare Alley, proved that a trashcan mimesis was quite sufficient to produce free-floating weirdness. This same era saw the uncanny flourishing, in their original New Yorker cartoon form, of The Addams Family. A decade later, Robert Bloch's Psycho, from 1959, offered the most stripped-down version of the crazed nuclear family, a one-member (or is it a two-member?) clan, whose motel is after all an entertainment facility of sorts.

Inspired by Addams, Ray Bradbury delivered his own tales of the similar Elliott family, starting with 1946's "The Homecoming," and pursued the pure circus form of the theme in his 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Coincidentally that same year, Shirley Jackson reasserted the creepiness of twisted and demented naturalism with We Have Always Lived in the Castle. From that definitive milestone, it was a fairly long leap to Ian McEwan's 1978 upping of the ante with The Cement Garden, and a comparable stretch before Carolyn Chute's The Beans of Egypt, Maine in 1985 and Katherine Dunn's Geek Love in 1989.

Perhaps discouraged by the hefty and exhaustive accomplishments of this majestic honor roll, authors have not ventured into this territory recently in great numbers. But two major admirable exceptions exist: the 1997 novel Dogland by Will Shetterly, in which the narrator recounts his adolescent years helping to run a Florida roadside tourist attraction dedicated to exhibiting every dog breed in creation; and Jeffrey Ford's 2008 book, The Shadow Year, where a set of off-kilter siblings must deal not only with parental ineptitude but also murderous supernatural intrusions into their Bradburyesque town.

Sharing this noble literary bloodline of familial battiness, Karen Russell's exotic Bigtree clan comes out at the top of the weirdo heap. They operate a shabby gator-wrestling establishment on an island mired in Florida's swampy backwaters -- carnies of a sort, united against rubes and "mainlander" types. The paterfamilias, Chief Bigtree, has his heart and soul sunk into the ancestral place, as did his late wife, Hilola. (Her spectral presence, more imagined than real, haunts the characters and the book.) The teenage children, naturally, exhibit mixed feelings about their quirky destiny. Older daughter Ossie is a dreamy type, frustrated enough in her budding carnality to fall in love with ghosts. Son Kiwi is all naïve practicality and has a desire to engage with the larger world. And youngest daughter Ava -- well, she's the most complex one of them all, befitting her status as our lush-voiced narrator, layering her adult sensibilities and vocabulary over this account of a few pivotal months in the history of Swamplandia! (the exclamation point is an inextricable element of their attraction's name).

Russell's zany density of setting, action, and characterization had obviously been steeping for some time. In 2006, she appeared in Zoetrope All-Story magazine with "Ava Wrestles the Alligator," a vignette involving Ava and Ossie temporarily on their own. (The tale now serves as a kind of alternate history to the events of the novel.) This story prominently opened Russell's collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Two other pieces -- "Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows" and "Out to Sea" -- also figured at least tangentially in the Bigtree mythos. Overall, the wild-eyed fables here gleefully illustrate youthful strainings against the limits of society and consensus normality. At times Russell's work echoes that of George Saunders, though with a brighter, less mordant affect. (In fact, Saunders gets a shout-out on the acknowledgment page.)

Russell is no miniaturist or minimalist, but rather the opposite, heir to a Southern tradition of tall tales, thick descriptions, deep backstories, and contrary cusses as anti-heroes. (Think of A Confederacy of Dunces as the template for such outrageous saintly fools.) Her theme of the onerous weight of a family's destiny would not be out of place in any Faulkner production. Neither is she shy about heaping on the plot. By the end of Chapter One, we've already been introduced to all the family dynamics and much of its history, and seen the threat on the horizon, which is a rival amusement park on the mainland called the "World of Darkness."

After grounding us brilliantly and intimately in the geography of the place known as Swamplandia! -- both its contemporary physical and psychological terrain, nuanced with some fascinating Florida history -- Russell makes the brave move of fragmenting the gestalt. Ossie and Kiwi run away separately, the Chief goes missing, and Ava is left alone on the island. Then arrives a mysterious figure, the Bird Man, who Ava is convinced can help track down her specter-misled sister, and the pair set off on a creepy odyssey whose mythic elements recall such larger-than-life quests as the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, Frodo's wanderings, and Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Meanwhile, half the narrative is now concerned with Kiwi's misadventures on the mainland while working at World of Darkness. This portion of the book, while highly amusing in a satirical manner that rags on many modern absurdities, lacks the epic and feverish derangement of Ava's adventures -- although, to be fair, Russell unites the two strands at the end very satisfactorily.

By expelling the characters from the safety of their shell, their self-constructed refuge or paradise or Eden, however shabby, Russell calls to mind another classic novel of familial insanity in a Gothic setting: Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy. Her expulsion of Ava and Kiwi into the "real world" has much the same force and flavor as the final volume in Peake's cycle, Titus Alone.

Russell privileges a kind of idioglossia, the special language and set of associations known only to the Bigtree clan, fabulators all. (The very American trait of creating one's own identity is an explicit riff in the book as well.) For instance, the Bigtrees dub all gators "Seth," resulting in quite a few surreal sentences, such as: "A tiny, fiery Seth. Her skull was the exact shape and shining hue of a large halved strawberry." Ava's juicy, poetic voice, assembled through sheer willpower and joie de vivre and desperation from a self-taught young genius's love of language, is what carries this book even more so than the bizarre events. Without rendering Ava as some sort of impossible freak, Russell nonetheless employs subtle craft to highlight her uniqueness born of isolation and dreaminess. In a way, Ava is kin to the "girls raised by wolves" from the title story in Russell's collection.

If you were to take the exuberantly fecund tropical paintings of Martin Johnson Heade and commission the ghost of Angela Carter to write a story based on them, you might very well end up with something approaching the garish and fierce beauty of Swamplandia!

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307263995
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/1/2011
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 415,347
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet 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.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: The Beginning of the End

Our mother performed in starlight. Whose innovation this was I never discovered. Probably it was Chief Bigtree’s idea, and it was a good one—to blank the follow spot and let a sharp moon cut across the sky, unchaperoned; to kill the microphone; to leave the stage lights’ tin eyelids scrolled and give the tourists in the stands a chance to enjoy the darkness of our island; to encourage the whole stadium to gulp air along with Swamplandia!’s star performer, the world-famous alligator wrestler Hilola Bigtree. Four times a week, our mother climbed the ladder above the Gator Pit in a green two-piece bathing suit and stood on the edge of the diving board, breathing. If it was windy, her long hair flew around her face, but the rest of her stayed motionless. Nights in the swamp were dark and star-lepered—our island was thirty-odd miles off the grid of mainland lights—and although your naked eye could easily find the ball of Venus and the sapphire hairs of the Pleiades, our mother’s body was just lines, a smudge against the palm trees.

Somewhere directly below Hilola Bigtree, dozens of alligators pushed their icicle overbites and the awesome diamonds of their heads through over three hundred thousand gallons of filtered water. The deep end—the black cone where Mom dove—was twenty-seven feet; at its shallowest point, the water tapered to four inches of muck that lapped at coppery sand. A small spoil island rose out of the center of the Pit, a quarter acre of dredged limestone; during the day, thirty gators at a time crawled into a living mountain on the rocks to sun themselves.

The stadium that housed the Gator Pit seated 265 tourists. Eight tiered rows ringed the watery pen; a seat near the front put you at eye level with our gators. My older sister, Osceola, and I watched our mother’s show from the stands. When Ossie leaned forward, I leaned with her.

At the entrance to the Gator Pit, our father—the Chief—had nailed up a crate-board sign: YOU WATCHERS IN THE FIRST FOUR ROWS GUARANTEED TO GET WET! Just below this, our mother had added, in her small, livid lettering: ANY BODY COULD GET HURT.

The tourists moved sproingily from buttock to buttock in the stands, slapping at the ubiquitous mosquitoes, unsticking their khaki shorts and their printed department-store skirts from their sweating thighs. They shushed and crushed against and cursed at one another; couples curled their pale legs together like eels, beer spilled, and kids wept. At last, the Chief cued up the music. Trumpets tooted from our big, old-fashioned speakers, and the huge unseeing eye of the follow spot twisted through the palm fronds until it found Hilola. Just like that she ceased to be our mother. Fame settled on her like a film—“Hilola Bigtree, ladies and gentlemen!” my dad shouted into the microphone. Her shoulder blades pinched back like wings before she dove.

The lake was planked with great gray and black bodies. Hilola Bigtree had to hit the water with perfect precision, making incremental adjustments midair to avoid the gators. The Chief’s follow spot cast a light like a rime of ice onto the murk, and Mom swam inside this circle across the entire length of the lake. People screamed and pointed whenever an alligator swam into the spotlight with her, a plump and switching tail cutting suddenly into its margarine wavelengths, the spade of a monster’s face jawing up at her side. Our mother swam blissfully on, brushing at the spotlight’s perimeter as if she were testing the gate of a floating corral.

Like black silk, the water bunched and wrinkled. Her arms rowed hard; you could hear her breaststrokes ripping at the water, her gasps for air. Now and then a pair of coal-red eyes snagged at the white net of the spotlight as the Chief rolled it over the Pit. Three long minutes passed, then four, and at last she gasped mightily and grasped the ladder rails on the eastern side of the stage. We all exhaled with her. Our stage wasn’t much, just a simple cypress board on six-foot stilts, suspended over the Gator Pit. She climbed out of the lake. Her trembling arms folded over the dimple of her belly button; she spat water, gave a little wave.

The crowd went crazy.

When the light found her a second time, Hilola Bigtree—the famous woman from the posters, the “Swamp Centaur”—was gone. Our mother was herself again: smiling, brown-skinned, muscular. A little thicker through the waist and hips than she appeared on those early posters, she liked to joke, since she’d had her three kids.

“Mom!” Ossie and I would squeal, racing around the wire fence and over the wet cement that ringed the Gator Pit to get to her before the autograph seekers elbowed us out. “You won!”

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. We leased an expensive billboard on the interstate, just south of Cape Coral: COME SEE "SETH," FANGSOME SEA SERPENT AND ANCIENT LIZARD OF DEATH!!! We called all our alligators Seth. (“Tradition is as important, kids,” Chief Bigtree liked to say, “as promotional materials are expensive.”) The billboard featured a ten-foot alligator, one of the Seths, hissing soundlessly. Its jaws gape to reveal the rosebud pink of a queen conch shell; its scales are a wet-looking black. We Bigtrees are kneeling around the primordial monster in reverse order of height: my father, the Chief; my grandfather, Sawtooth; my mother, Hilola; my older brother, Kiwi; my sister, Osceola; and finally, me. We are wearing Indian costumes on loan from our Bigtree Gift Shop: buckskin vests, cloth headbands, great blue heron feathers, great white heron feathers, chubby beads hanging off our foreheads and our hair in braids, gator “fang” necklaces.

Although there was not a drop of Seminole or Miccosukee blood in us, the Chief always costumed us in tribal apparel for the photographs he took. He said we were “our own Indians.” Our mother had a toast-brown complexion that a tourist could maybe squint and call Indian—and Kiwi, Grandpa Sawtooth, and I could hold our sun. But my sister, Osceola, was born snowy—not a weak chamomile blond but pure frost, with eyes that vibrated somewhere between maroon and violet. Her face was like our mother’s face cast forward onto cloudy water. Before we posed for the picture on that billboard, our mother colored her in with drugstore blusher. The Chief made sure she was covered by the shadow of a tree. Kiwi liked to joke that she looked like the doomed sibling you see in those Wild West daguerreotypes, the one who makes you think, Oh God, take the picture quick; that kid is not long for this world.

Our park housed ninety-eight captive alligators in the Gator Pit. We also had a Reptile Walk, a two-mile-long boardwalk through the paurotis palms and saw grass that my grandfather and father designed and built. There you could see caimans, gharials, Burmese and Afri- can pythons, every variety of tree frog, a burrow hole of red-bellied turtles and lachrymose morning glories, and a rare Cuban crocodile, Methuselah—a croc that was such an expert mimic of a log that it had moved only once in my presence, when its white jaw fell open like a suitcase.

We had one mammal, Judy Garland, a small, balding Florida brown bear who had been rescued as a cub by my grandparents, back when bears still roamed the pinewoods of the northern swamp. Judy Garland’s fur looked like a scorched rug—my brother said she had ursine alopecia. She could do a trick, sort of: the Chief had trained her to nod along to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Everybody, without exception, hated this trick. Her Oz-nods terrified small children and shocked their parents. “Somebody, help! This bear is having a seizure!” the park guests would cry—the bear had bad rhythm—but we had to keep her, said the Chief. The bear was family.

Our park had an advertising campaign that was on par with the best of the aqua-slide attractions and the miniature golf courses; we had the cheapest beer in a three-county radius; and we had wrestling shows 365 days a year, rain or shine, no federal holidays, no Christian or pagan interruptions. We Bigtrees had our problems, too, of course, like anybody—Swamplandia! had been under siege from several enemy forces, natural and corporate, for most of my short lifetime. We islanders worried about the menace of the melaleuca woods—the melaleuca, or paperbark tree, was an exotic invasive species that was draining huge tracts of our swamp to the northeast. And everybody had one eye on the sly encroachment of the suburbs and Big Sugar in the south. But it always seemed to me like my family was winning. We had never been defeated by the Seths. Every Saturday evening (and most weeknights!) of our childhoods, our mom performed the Swimming with the Seths act and she always won. For a thousand shows, we watched our mother sink into black water, rise. For a thousand nights, we watched the green diving board quaking in air, in the bright wake of her.

And then our mom got sick, sicker than a person should ever be allowed to get. I was twelve when she got her diagnosis and I was furious. There is no justice and no logic, the cancer doctors cooed around me; I don’t remember the exact words they used, but I could not decode a note of hope. One of the nurses brought me chocolate duds from the vending machine that stuck in my throat. These doctors were always stooping to talk to us, or so it seemed to me, like every doctor on her ward was a giant, seven or eight feet tall. Mom fell through the last stages of her cancer at a frightening speed. She no longer resembled our mother. Her head got soft and bald like a baby’s head. We had to watch her sink into her own face. One night she dove and she didn’t come back. Air cloaked the hole that she left and it didn’t once tremble, no bubbles, it seemed she really wasn’t going to surface. Hilola Jane Bigtree, world-class alligator wrestler, terrible cook, mother of three, died in a dryland hospital bed in West Davey on an overcast Wednesday, March 10, at 3:12 p.m.

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Reading Group Guide

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.
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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 240 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 17, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Readers who enjoy something cutting edge different will want Swamplandia!

    Florida is known for some of the oddest tourist attractions (some might say traps) on the planet. The state is home to Swamplandia where Bigtree alligator-wrestling has gone on for ages. However, several recent setbacks place the family business in jeopardy as the once popular stop appears heading to bankrupt extinction.

    There are talent issues as the star wrestler Hilia who brought in the masses to watch a female pin alligators recently died. The older daughter Ossie has fallen in love and elopes with a ghost of a man. Adding insult their brother Kiwi accepts a position as janitor at their more powerfully backed rival the World of Darkness. Finally the patriarch Chief Bigtree has vanished. Thus the youngest sibling thirteen years old Ava takes over her late mom's spot as the show must go on, but lacks her glamour and experience and besides has to herd just under a hundred gators and care for the park while controlling her grief. However, all changes when Ava believes she must rescue her father trapped in hell otherwise known as Gulf of Mexico; her allies are Grandpa Sawtooth, the Bird Man, and her BFF the midget alligator; at stake is her dad, the park and their island.

    This is a wonderful odd fantasy with the key players fully substantial that they bring core realism to the capricious tale. Obviously this is Ava's saga but the support cast enhances her save her world story line. Readers who enjoy something cutting edge different will want Swamplandia! Tour guide Karen Russell escorting them around the island, the park, and the Gulf in this enchanting but strange thriller (see St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves anthology for more entertainingly refreshing)tales.

    Harriet Klausner

    13 out of 19 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 10, 2011

    Almost There, But Not Quite

    I enjoyed Swamplandia! but it is not a book I would really recommend. It's merit is in it's characters. All are individually interesting and vibrant and even more so when thought of as a family. Russell goes into wonderful detail explaning the the rich and colorful Bigtree family and their Seths. It's the plot that's lacking! The first, descriptive, half of the book is fabulous, but so much more could've been done with the second half. The plotline gets confusing. I foudn myself asking "WHERE IS THIS BOOK GOING?" Not enough attention is paid to individual storylines and although the book felt too long, there needed to be more at the end. What happened to Ossie during her journey w/LT? What happened to the Birdman? What happened to Ava? What happened to Swamplandia!? While Russell touches upon all these questions, she doesn't fully answer them. You feel connected & interested to the characters and their sagas. You wonder about their fates, and then BOOM. THE END. This book needed more. That being said, I did LIKE it, but not enough to confidently recommend it to anyone.

    9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 22, 2011

    Not great, don't waste your money on this one

    I'm still trying to figure out why this book has been popular. Frankly, I don't think I will finish it. It's all over the place, the overdone descriptions of each situation make me want to skip through large parts of the book. It's just not a book I look forward to picking up again. I'm reading it for a book club, and every other person in the club feels exactly the same way. I wouldn't waste your money on this one.

    8 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2011

    Couldn't put it down!

    It has been a vey long time since a book has intoxicated me as much as this one. Karen Russel's brilliant prose breathes to life unforgettable characters and reclaims the beauty of a forgotten geography. She gives the well worn theme of childhood lost a new perspective and keeps you turning pages until you are sorry there are none left.

    7 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 25, 2011

    Not for everyone, but the lady can write.

    When you're reading Swamplandia! you know you're in the hands of a writer who can make you gasp at her ability to use language, who knows more strange and interesting stuff than just about anyone you've met, and who has a boundless imagination. The trouble is she doesn't always know what to do with all these gifts and the reader doesn't always know what to make of the book. I didn't have any difficulty making the journey (the journeys) just for the sheer pleasure of Ava's and Kiwi's company. But like her characters I did sometimes feel lost along the way. And, at the end, looking back, I don't know what to make of the trip. I do have the feeling that there were a couple of places in the book where Russell made some wrong turns and got pulled into the vortex of her own brilliance. But to be sure, I will read her next.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2011


    Taken in by the cover, I was intrigued enough to read a few lines. I was hooked from the beginning. Russel's prose are of such moving quality that I found myself riveted. Innocent and dark, insightful and all-too-relatable; I ached for Russel's characters. A truly brilliant new author. A must read for those who wander from the beaten path and enjoy the extraordinary.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 22, 2011

    Bring your muck boots to get through this swamp.

    This one falls apart about three chapters into the swamp. By the end I was rooting for the alligators. Too much story spread out over too many characters and a lack of development to care about any one of them or their plight. By the end, I just didn't care.

    6 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 18, 2011

    The price has dropped! So stop giving an amazing book bad reviews.

    I don't know what kind of society people think we live in but expecting everything to be cheap/free is absurd as well as counter productive. If people want free books take a few minutes out of your busy days of whining to learn how to illegally download them, in the mean time I will spend every penny on a book as artistically crafted as Swamplandia and hope some of it trickles down to the author.

    6 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2012

    I was so gratified to see the number of people who did NOT like

    I was so gratified to see the number of people who did NOT like this book. I didn't either, and I wondered what was wrong with me, considering all the rave reviews it has gotten from professional critics. I was bored, frankly, and quit after about fifty pages. I was expecting something on the order of Carl Hiaasen, one of my favorite writers, and it wasn't, so that was my fault.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 4, 2011

    A New Favorite!

    From the moment I read the synopsis of Swamplandia by Karen Russell, I knew I had to read it. Once I began reading, I could not help but think that the audience might include fans of Geek Love. I was not surprised to see that in her acknowledgments, Russell lists Geek Love author Katherine Dunn as an influence. No surprise, Geek Love is a favorite of mine. Swamplandia! is not a light-hearted tale. There are definitely things wrong in the Bigtree family after matriarch Hilola Bigtree's death. Hilola, the alligator wrestler, is the main attraction for Swamplandia! The family is unable to continue enticing tourists to their swampy island without Hilola. I don't want to spoil anything for potential readers, but very worrisome events occur after the tourists stop arriving. The book seemed somewhat slow-going at first, but the descriptions were vivid enough to keep me reading. It was all worth it. Swamplandia! is a new favorite for me. Many readers seem to have arrived at reading this book after enjoying Russell's St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. I am in the opposite camp. After reading Swamplandia!, I cannot wait to get my hands on her short story collection.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 28, 2012

    Oh Swamplandia!

    The fact that Karen Russel managed to produce such a honed gem of a book in her 20s (!) Is nearly uncanny. This book had so many shining facets to keep this reader in it's thrall- Eccentric outsiders,.characters so well-drawn that empathy is effortless, family ties, love, grief, wry humor, southern gothic ghost stories, history & science, heady atmospheres, teen angst & hardwon wisdom, trauma, adventure...and all shot through with bang-on metaphors, beautiful similies, descriptive vistas of aching beauty.

    Yes indeed, an awesome book and one of the finest credits to Florida lit. since Marjorie Keenan Rawlins' 'Cross Creek'.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 21, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    A Fresh Voice

    Things are not going well in Swamplandia! Once a major tourist draw with hordes of visitors each day, the death of the show's main attraction has put a serious dent in the business. Even worse, the main attraction was also the mother of the Bigtree family that runs Swamplandia.

    Karen Russell's novel is the story of how this family comes to grip with the loss of their mother and the possible ending of the only life they have known; that of the Bigtree family of Swamplandia!. There are three children. Ossie, the oldest sister who is sixteen, has never been that involved with the business, being a fey girl who drifts through life. She becomes entranced with spiritualism and soon convinces herself that she can talk to the dead and that dead boys are perfect boyfriends. Kiwi, the oldest and only son, has always wanted a 'normal' life on the mainland, and leaves the Swamplandia! island, determined to make it on his own and then figure out how to save the park. Ava Bigtree is thirteen and the novel's protagonist. She loves the business and her only dream is to grow up and take over for her mother.

    Chief Bigtree, the father, is one of those optimistic people who is sure everything will work out even when he has no plan to make it happen. He leaves on a mysterious business trip shortly after Kiwi's departure, leaving the girls alone on the island. Ossie disappears into the swamp, chasing her ghostly love, and Ava soon goes into the swamp to rescue her. Will this family ever be reunited and made whole?

    Readers will love the fresh voice and writing style of Karen Russell. Ava's spirit is so big it jumps off the page, and the ability to experience life from her young perspective is intriguing. The characters are memorable, and the reader gets to experience the Florida swamps in all their murky, humid, bug-infested, dangerous appeal. This book is recommended for all readers, and especially those interested in coming of age stories and those of families finding their way to make a live together.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 18, 2012

    gothic metaphors. in touch with current culture. ironic. told so

    gothic metaphors. in touch with current culture. ironic. told so carefully, always almost funny then not. pain expressed with out excess juxtaposed to another kind excess told through seriously innocent eyes. feminine child perspective perfectly expressed. an engaging story, never read anything similar. kids wanting to save crumbling family. and they do. probably helps i was a disneyland kid:) wanting to save my family. IMO, this is art. best book i have read in years.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 29, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    I think Karen Russel is an excellent author with great writing s

    I think Karen Russel is an excellent author with great writing skill. The characters in this book are intriguing, the whole venture suffers by a weak and meandering plot. I'd be interested to read another Karen Russel novel but this one just barely makes it out of the swamp.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 7, 2012

    Great writer but the story is disappointing

    I was enjoying the style of Karen Russel's writing. It is very vivid and her world comes alive off the pages. The description of the characters was also very good. What I didn't like was the story itself. First off I felt the main character was a bit old for her age considering she led such a sheltered life. The pacing was odd too especially at the end. It wrapped up too quickly. I also felt it was so unsatisfying in the end. I think Ms Russell has a great style I just hope her story is better the next time.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 29, 2012

    I'm being kind...

    I think I'm being kind when I give this book three stars. It's not that the writing was bad, because honestly, it wasn't. It wasn't that the characters were awful, because they weren't. Mainly it's because about half way through this book all of the characters take a nose dive towards disaster and are basically ruined by life. From the start you know that life won't be easy for them but you continue to read it because the characters are loveable and have such great souls. By the end, the world is pretty much a confirmed poophole from which no one gets out alive.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 4, 2011

    Library read, until there's a paperback

    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.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 7, 2011

    Disappointing...difficult to finish

    This book is overly descriptive detailed in areas of no concern, and completely under descriptive detailed in areas that should be. It totally loses your interest with the different tangents it takes constantly, in fact towards the end when you are adept at skipping large sections of descriptive text, you almost miss the two sentences that have a huge impact on the story...it's a disappointing read. Everyone in our book club felt the same way, which left us wondering why our thoughts were so different from all the other reviews...

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 6, 2012

    Depressing and unimaginative.

    I kept reading and reading waiting for the plot to draw me in. Never happened. Sad characters and an anticlimatic predictable ending.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 6, 2012

    Magical realism

    It takes a while to really get into the main plot of the story and the vocabulary is a little dense...especially if you know nothing about alligators or swamps...but overall a really interesting book. Not a typical coming of age story.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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