Book Review: Swamplandia! (with spoilers)


Title & Author: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Genre: Fiction, Women’s Fiction


Being eaten alive by that alligator might be less torturous…

Swamplandia! is book #52 of my reading challenge – which means I succeeded! Unfortunately this book left a bitter taste in my mouth. That said, I’m not a copywriter, full-time book critic nor do I work in publishing. I haven’t written a novel (“Yet”, she thought with hope) so I have no idea of the difficulties involved in keeping everything straight. These are just the thoughts of an avid reader who has a full-time job she loves in a completely different field.

This review has spoilers – if you don’t want spoilers, check out my spoiler-free Swamplandia! review.

Swamplandia! is the name of an alligator amusement park in the Florida Everglades. The attraction is on an island in the Ten Thousand Islands chain and requires a ferry from the mainland to bring in tourists. The story revolves around the Bigtree family, who own and run the park and also live on the island. The main characters are:

  • 13-year-old Ava – the main narrator and a trainee alligator wrestler
  • 17-year-old Kiwi – a secondary narrator, if that’s a thing, and a bookworm
  • 16-year-old Osceola (“Ossie”) – the only sibling who doesn’t narrate portions of the book. She also speaks with ghosts and spends a lot of time reading The Spiritualists’ Telegraph.
  • “Chief” Bigtree – the siblings’ father, leader of the Bigtree “tribe” and proprietor of Swamplandia!
  • Hilola Bigtree – the siblings’ mother, who dies of cancer early in the book [not a spoiler]. She was an alligator wrestler and the star of Swamplandia! shows.
  • Sawtooth Bigtree – the siblings’ grandfather who has succumbed to dementia and is now living in a retirement home.

After Hilola Bigtree passes from cancer, visitors to the park slow to a trickle. Her alligator wrestling shows were the real attraction and without her there’s just not a lot of point in going. At the same time, a new amusement park – World of Darkness – opens on the mainland. They have fancy, new rides and slick television ads. The tourists stop visiting Swamplandia! altogether – why take a 45+ minute ferry to a sad little park when you can stay on the mainland and go to a brand new one? This prompts the Chief to unveil a new “carnival Darwinism” plan to improve Swamplandia! but he needs money from investors.

Kiwi is highly skeptical of the Chief’s new plans, or his ability to keep the park open at all, so he runs away to the mainland. And by “runs away” I mean “calls the ferryman for a ride” – you can’t just leave the swamp that easily. So Kiwi is gone and the Chief says nothing about it. All the Chief focuses on is his new park strategy and he soon leaves for the mainland to drum up investors.

Meanwhile Osceola is developing her ability to speak with (or “be possessed by”) ghosts. She disappears for hours, often overnight, during these possessions. This leaves Ava, a 13-year-old, alone at home much of the time. She takes care of the alligators, which are all called “Seth”, and maintains the park as best she can. One day she checks the incubators and discovers a ruby red “Seth” which she raises as a pet. She plans to share this marvel with her family once it grows to a foot in length.

At one point, Ossie runs away with her ghost boyfriend [via his abandoned dredge ship which has been stuck in the swamp for ages] so that she can go to the underworld and marry him. Instead of contacting her father or the authorities or literally ANYONE, Ava wants to go after Ossie herself. She enlists the help of “Bird Man”, a stranger who wears this disgusting-sounding feather coat and clears birds from your portion of the swamp for a fee, to help her bring Ossie back. At this juncture, the book – which had previously been told only from Ava’s perspective – shifts between Ava’s and Kiwi’s points of view on a per-chapter basis. This allows the author to keep us up to speed on Kiwi’s mainland adventures. If Russell had started the book with these alternating perspectives that would have been fine, but the switch occurring in the middle felt disjointed.

Also, the pace of this book was really off. It was relatively slow and mellow for much of the story arc and then it got faster around 75% of the way through. This didn’t feel like it was intentional – it felt like the author wanted to wrap everything up and she had a certain number of pages in which to do that.

Ok, time for the spoilers I avoided in the other version of this review…

About 85% of the way through the book, the Bird Man rapes Ava. You can see earlier that things are headed in that direction but it’s still a bit of a punch in the gut. You want Ava to fight – she doesn’t. She casually thinks about the fact that the Bird Man only needs to remove the top two latches on her overalls, not all of the buttons. WHAT? And then it’s over and not really mentioned again. To escape, Ava throws her special red Seth at the Bird Man and runs off on her own. Since she never showed the red alligator to anyone, I kept wondering if that was a metaphor for losing her virginity. Did I mention that Ava is 13?

At the end of the book, the Bigtrees are reunited and here’s what I learned:

  • Ava’s not as strong as she thinks. She can wrestle alligators but has no power over a grown man. She never talks about her rape.
  • Kiwi’s not as smart as he thinks – he scored really low on a night school equivalency test and constantly mispronounces the show-off words he uses
  • Ossie doesn’t have spiritualist powers, she hears voices in her head. They put her on medication for this at the end of the book. This could have been a chance to discuss mental illness but no.
  • The Chief has been living a double life for years – his “business trips” to the mainland were really month-long stints working at a casino to earn money to keep Swamplandia! open.

Ultimately, Swamplandia! was like watching a bad horror movie. In my head I was yelling at these characters – Ava in particular – through much of the book. “Don’t let him into your house!”, “Don’t go with him!”, “Tell Whip Jeters [park services official] that the Bird Man isn’t your cousin!” I could easily have set the book down (or removed it from my Kindle if we’re being technical) but it was highly praised and it would complete my annual reading challenge – so I stuck with it. You don’t need to suffer that same fate.

Verdict: This book had a lot going for it: an interesting premise, unique and quirky characters, critical praise. It failed to deliver for me. The characters were quirky but ultimately hollow. The premise was interesting but went nowhere – so much of the story felt like half-formed thoughts. There were some nice moments, some beautiful turns of phrase, but they only highlighted how much the rest of the book is lacking.
Recommended for: I can usually find a silver lining and imagine someone wanting or needing to read a book. That’s not the case here.
Price: $9.99 (Kindle) – $17.99 (hardcover) on Amazon. Too high. Borrow from a library if you must read it.

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