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On Sale: February 01, 2011
Pages: 336 | ISBN: 978-0-307-59544-7
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

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.

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 micro?phone. 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.


From the Hardcover edition.
Karen Russell|Author Q&A

About Karen Russell

Karen Russell - Swamplandia!

Photo © Joanne Chan

Karen Russell, a native of Miami, won the 2012 National Magazine Award for fiction, and her first novel, Swamplandia! (2011), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She is a graduate of the Columbia MFA program, a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow, and a 2012 Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. She lives in Philadelphia.

Karen Russell is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (http://www.rhspeakers.com).

Author Q&A

Q: Swamplandia! and your story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, are both set in a sort of enchanted, Lewis Carroll-like version of North America. What draws you to these worlds and how do you create them? 
A: Well, I think I owe a big debt to Lewis Carroll himself, probably, and other folks who I read as a kid like Ray Bradbury and Peter S. Beagle and Stephen King and Madeleine L'Engle. My favorite books were always the ones where I felt like an alternate world had been created in some star cradle by the author and, in an amazing feat of compression, shrunken down into a 200-page book (or, in the case of Ray Bradbury, a three page story about a country uncle with green wings).  I think I wanted to create strange but familiar snow-globe worlds almost as soon as I started reading these books
 
I also think I'm drawn to imaginary places because it's an architecture that any reading consciousness can enter—as a kid I used to love talking to other readers who had visited the same nonexistent places as me—you know, Oz, Watership Down, Derry, Macondo. This kind of travel, to an invisible place created by the author, felt both exquisitely personal and also communal; anybody who could make it through the book could get from Kansas to Oz. At a time when nobody could drive and we were all child-hostages of our houses, when we could not even get to school by our own power, it made me so happy whenever I discovered that another kid and I had both gone to a wonderland or a dystopian England, and that, even more insanely, we'd done this inside of the same skin, merged with the same character. It still strikes me as an amazing thing to have in common with someone. Much better than discovering that you both bought jeans at the same GAP or ate shrimp flautas at the Chili's near the airport.
 
The world of Swamplandia! has been around since I first drafted “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” in graduate school, when I was 22. I can't pinpoint where exactly the idea came from, but it probably owes a great debt to my school's field trips to the Miccosukee Indian Village in the Everglades. I think these are still happening—a bunch of ten-year olds from “the mainland” of Miami stuff their ears with cotton balls and board an airboat; then, in my experience at least, you eat pinkish hamburgers with mayonnaise and watch a sweaty man in jeans perform a gator-wrestling demonstration. I remember feeling confused about who to root for in this battle—the man was more or less sitting on the alligator. My Ikea sofa puts up more of a fight than the alligator did that day. For reasons I can't perfectly explain, this day has become one of my favorite memories. It didn't start out that way, but it has stealthily crept up in the rankings. Now I think that gator wrestling demonstration, which I sort of snoozed through at the time, must have made a more lasting and dramatic impression than I realized.
 
I don't think it's a coincidence that so many authors are drawn to South Florida (Carl Hiaasen, Peter Matthiessen, Joy Williams). There is something absolutely haunting about the swamp. If you go to the Everglades, it does feel as if you're standing in a mythic and a real space at once. I wanted to explore the extreme, alien beauty of the Everglades—and also its extreme devastation, which we've managed to accomplish in just a few generations of Floridian settlement, from the plume-hunting of the nineteenth century to the more recent dyking and drainage and Big Sugar's phosphorus pollution.
 
Q: Many of your narratives are seen through the eyes of children, and rather precocious ones at that. Do you believe there is something unique or meaningful about childhood, particularly the perspective and experience of youth, that makes you continuously return to them as protagonists?
A: For better or for worse, when I sit down to write I feel gravitationally pulled towards characters who are children and adolescents.  I was joking with a friend that I can decide to write a story about the rabbits of the apocalypse, and it will undoubtedly being, “The world was ending. The bunny was fourteen-years old (in bunny years).”
 
I love the double optic that children possess—the way they can develop kid-theodicies and fantastic explanations, but also shift gears and have a nascent adult sense of the world, a more “realistic” vision. Ava, Ossie, and Kiwi are all poised at different thresholds, about to go through literal and figurative doors to reach new life stages, which is an exciting/terrifying period to get to dramatize in fiction. I heard Antonya Nelson say that all stories can be thought of as “coming of age” stories, since a character is confronted with a new event or new information that compels a change of status. And the child to adult transition—I don't think that's a one time affair. I think we're probably all struggling to suit up and be adults, every day.
 
Q: Speaking of Lewis Carroll, your book’s epigraph is a quote from his Through the Looking-Glass:
“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice.
“I only wish that I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone.  “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too!  Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!”
Why did you choose this particular quote?  Does it hold special significance for you?
A: That epigraph is seared into my brain now—I think it performed a sort of lighthouse-function for me. Whenever I felt lost during the drafting process, I'd return to it. I love it because it so succinctly contains one of the central questions of the book—how can we find one another, how can we truly “see” one another, when so much of our lives are spent straining after phantoms?   
 
To me, this bit of dialogue is hilarious and sad, and hope-filled, too, in its wry way; it  acknowledges the extreme difficulty of seeing real people—seeing yourself, seeing anybody clearly. Finding the clean lines of another person, in spite of the warped glass of need and desire and terror and projection/fantasy that can fog up our lenses.
 
So much of the story of Swamplandia! is taken up with the girls’ quest to find the ghost of their mother. Grief is a very private affair for these characters, and each member of the Bigtree family is so focused on the ghosts of the past, and their doomed, miraculous visions of the future, that they keep missing one another in the present.
 
It gets right to the heart of the problem; That's why I love that epigraph.
 
Q: What is it like making your first big leap into novel-writing?
A:  I think “leap” is the right word—I thought it was incredibly challenging, to be honest. You know, I heard Nicole Krauss recently compare novel-writing to something along the lines of, “breaking all of your bones and stitching them together again.” Which I think suggests the incredible transformations that a book can go through from conception to the final draft.
 
In the case of Swamplandia!, the book that is being published contains material as old as 2006. At one point I had 500-plus pages, most of them terrible.  I had to write the book straight through once and then pretty much start fresh, with a destination now in mind. There was a lot of joy and discovery in the process, but I'd be lying if I said the leap was 100% exhilarating. I'm sure it's a smoother transition for many authors moving from story writing to a novel, but I didn't exactly take to the ice and skate a perfect figure-eight. I was crashing all over the ice, yelling, “What the hell is a novel, does anybody know? Is spring here yet?”
 
Then at a certain point I turned some corner, and the writing was joy-filled again, and I could hear Ava's voice in my head, and I cannot describe the relief of that moment. But I have no idea how to do it again, write a novel, even though I look forward to trying. I have a respect that is huger than a Macy's day parade float for every novelist out there. It's such hard work and it also feels ridiculous to me sometimes, all the effort that it takes—like, why can't you get some imaginary people to do something interesting? You invented these fools, why can't you make them behave?
 
Q: Do you see any of yourself or your family in the members of the Bigtree tribe?
A: I would not want any reader to mistake the Bigtrees for my flesh-and-blood family. I keep apologizing to my siblings and my parents for this book—I know some readers will assume there is a one-to-one correspondence between, say, Ossie and my real life sister, and I feel very badly about this, because my real life sister is beautiful and sane and “as smart as a planet,” as my brother says, and nothing like Ossie Bigtree, who is a near-albino having sex with ghosts. Ditto my brother, who is not a ginger-haired dork—my brother is a genius, actually, but he would never claim to be one in the doofily aggrandizing way that Kiwi does.
 
I do feel that this book is much more personal than anything else I've written,
in part because the setting of Swamplandia! is a tweaked version of South Florida. And it does feel emotionally autobiographical in places—but only in the loose way that you're always creating stories out of your own set of experiences on this planet, extrapolating from these to build a character's mind.  Only a few threads are directly lifted from life. Like Ava, I find alligators transfixing (for pets, my family had two inbred and obese miniature schnauzers, no Seths). Like Kiwi, I still really bungle the pronunciation of many basic words (just yesterday I pronounced “duet” so that it rhymed with "Monet"). And, at the risk of making everybody Hallmark-nauseous, I do think that the secret engine of this book is the strong love that exists in my own odd family.
 
Q: You’ve been featured in The New Yorker’s “20 under 40 Fiction Issue”, New York magazine’s list of twenty-five people to watch under the age of twenty-six, Granta’s “Best of Young American Novelists” issue, and named a National Book Foundation “5 under 35” young writer nominee. How do you feel about all this attention and awe surrounding your talent at such a young age?
A: I feel extremely grateful and weirdly embarrassed, too. Very aware of my own mortality, thanks to all the emphasis on age. I'm buying those Oil of Olay products, ok, I have crow's feet!! What I mean to say is that I don't feel quite young enough to merit any fuss, and I certainly don't feel like any kind of “Best Of” author, either, so these honors, while greatly appreciated, are also a little disorienting—you know, when my big writing victory of the day is deleting a louche joke about a starfish, it can be tough to feel like I'm making good on these votes of confidence from the New Yorker and Granta and the National Book Foundation.
 
That said, I cannot overstate how much that encouragement has meant to me, especially at this stage—it makes me want to write better, and has helped me to push on through big walls of self-doubt. I hope very much that I go on to write many more novels and stories, and that I can honor those lists. At the very least, I want to avoid the “Mistakes Were Made: 1 over 50 We Got Wrong” list!
 
Q: What’s next for you?
A: In what is probably a supreme over-correction for all that time I spent in the Florida swamp, I'm working on a new novel set in an imaginary town during the Dust Bowl drought. My sister was joking that it should be called “Drylandia.” Bring on that dust! No more alligators, although who knows, maybe a gator should burst out of a silo in the surprise last chapter, a la “Jaws.”
 
And I'm hoping to put together a new story collection by the year's end.
 


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“Absolutely irresistible. . . . A suspenseful, deeply haunted book. . . . A marvel.” —The New York Times
 
 “[Russell] has thrown the whole circus of her heart onto the page, safety nets be damned. . . . Russell has deep and true talent.” —San Francisco Chronicle
 
“Vividly worded, exuberant in characterization, the novel is a wild ride. . . . This family, wrestling with their desires and demons . . . will lodge in the memories of anyone lucky enough to read Swamplandia!” —The New York Times Book Review
 
“The bewitching Swamplandia! is a tremendous achievement.” —Entertainment Weekly
 
“Seduces before you’ve turned the first page.” —People 

“If no such thing as the Great Floridian Novel already existed, consider it done. . . . 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.” —Elle
 
“Beautiful, dark, and funny.” —Rolling Stone 
 
“A spook-house masterpiece.” —Atlanta Journal-Constitution 

“Dazzlingly original. . . . Like the state itself, Swamplandia! is a crossroads where the wild and the tame, the spectacular and the mundane meet; underneath the hubbub of the fantastic lies a family of misfits at sea in their grief—theirs is a story that is as ordinary as it is heartbreaking.” —Boston Globe
 
“Wonderfully imaginative.” —The Seattle Times
 
“A rich and humid world of spirits and dreams, buzzing mosquitoes and prehistoric reptiles, baby-green cocoplums and marsh rabbits, and musty old tomes about heroes and spells. With Ava [Russell] has created a goofy and self-conscious girl who is young enough to hope that all darkness has an answering lightness.” —The Economist

“A lusciously written phantasmagorical treat.” —Palm Beach Post

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.” —More

“Winningly told.” —Vogue
 
“Audacious, beguiling. . . . Ava’s story turns into a tale that could have been concocted by Flannery O’Connor in partnership with the Brothers Grimm—in other words, a first-class nightmare. . . . You will admire this novel for its prose, but you will love it for its big heart.” —The Daily Beast

“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. . . . [A] garish and fierce beauty.” —Salon
 
“The talent Karen Russell paraded in her remarkable short story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves has turned into mastery.” —Chicago Sun-Times
 
Swamplandia! is both a celebration of the Everglades and an elegy for it. . . . Russell has created a credible, captivating universe.” —The Sun Sentinel
 
“Think Scout Finch if she’d been raised in an old-school tourist attraction instead of a tiny town. Or Dorothy if a tornado had dropped her in the Everglades instead of Oz. Or Alice if she had tumbled into a Wonderland populated by gators and ghosts and a man in a coat made of feathers. . . . A story rich in fantastic images and gorgeous language, anchored . . . by its wonderfully human characters and its big, warm heart.” —St. Petersburg Times
 
“A rich, lively narrative (sometimes silly, sometimes sad) with gorgeous language. . . . Russell’s debut novel shines with the glow of the southern sun.” —The Oregonian
 
“Funny, sorrowful, and engrossing. . . . Hardly a page goes by without the reader marveling. . . . An adventure story, a tale of family, a testament to resilience and an account of America’s homogenization, Swamplandia! is an accomplished and affecting debut.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
 
“Unlike any story you’re familiar with. . . . A mesmerizing gothic portrait of love, death, and the loss of innocence.” —The Gainesville Times
 
“Russell’s writing is clear, rhythmic and dependable, even as her imagination runs wild.” —Los Angeles Times
 
“An astonishingly assured first novel.” —The Washington Times
 
“Some novels pull readers forward with plots that demand resolution; others make them want to linger on each sentence, bathing in the delights. Swamplandia! . . . does both, leaving readers with a sweet dilemma: Appreciate the present or forge on to find out what happens next.” —The Columbus Dispatch
 
“There’s simply no question that Russell writes beautifully, even about the darkest of truths.” —Time Out Chicago
 
“May be the best book you’ll ever read about a girl trying to save her family’s alligator-wrestling theme park.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
 
“Satisfying and heart-warming.” —Florida Times-Union
 
“Gorgeously written. . . . Russell’s flirtation with the fantastic adds a dangerous, off-kilter edge.” —Bookforum
 
“Intensely moving.”—The Onion’s A.V. Club, Grade: A
 
“[Russell’s] prose dazzles in any medium.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer  

 
“Russell’s prose is beautiful, vivid, and lovingly creepy—just like Florida itself. . . . Magnificent.” —The Stranger (Seattle, WA)
 
“[A] wonderfully overstuffed, scaldingly funny, and frightening debut. . . . Read this book, pass it on to those who deserve it, and be thankful that the world contains artists like Karen Russell.” —PopMatters.com
 
“Exuberant, big-hearted, and entertaining. . . . In the midst of making readers think, Russell also makes us laugh, cry and gasp as she concocts an amazing and undiscovered world and populates it with characters we come to care for deeply. You’ll want to savor the sentences in this literary triumph.” —Maclean’s

Awards

FINALIST 2012 Pulitzer Prize
WINNER 2011 School Library Journal Adult Books for Young Adults
WINNER 2012 New York Public Library's Young Lion Fiction Award
FINALIST 2012 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction
FINALIST 2012 The Orion Book Award
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

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.

About the Guide

“This was the first time I’ve read Karen Russell’s work, and I was dazzled. It’s very rare, among the tonnage of manuscripts and galleys that land upon one’s desk, to come across a young novelist so inventive and versatile, yet so thoroughly in control. Also, I’m a sucker for any plot line that features man-eating reptiles. . . . Passages of this fine novel call to mind Conrad, García Márquez, and even—for those who have kids—Judy Blume. . . . I can’t recall the last time I came across a character who shines as brightly as Ava, or a first novel that made such a rich and lasting impression.” —Carl Hiaasen
 
From the celebrated twenty-nine-year-old author of the everywhere-heralded short-story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves 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 on 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-year-old, 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.

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.

Discussion Guides

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 6) 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 36, 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 183, 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 221) 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 245, what did you expect to happen as a result?

18. On page 247, 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?


(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com) 

Suggested Readings

I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman; Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem; Star Island by Carl Hiaasen; Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue; C by Tom McCarthy; Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann; The Divine Comedy, Volume I: Inferno by Dante Alighieri.

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