The New York Times Book Review
Swamplandia!by Karen Russell
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/i>/i>… See more details below
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.
The New York Times Book Review
The New York Times
The Washington Post
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
More from this Author
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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