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.


Swamplandia! is a gator-wrestling theme park in Florida, run by the Bigtrees. Thirteen year old Ava has lived at Swamplandia! for her whole life. But when her mother (the main part of the show) dies of cancer, the Bigtree family is “plunged into chaos”; her father withdraws, her sister has a spooky boyfriend (who may or may not be a ghost) called the Dredgeman, and her brother Kiwi goes to work at a rival park, The World of Darkness. “As Ava sets out on a mission through the magical swamps to save them all, we are drawn into a lush and bravely imagined debut that takes us to the simmering edge of reality.”

I loved this book. It’s one of those books where the plot doesn’t seem that interesting, but the author’s writing style just pulls you in anyway. The New York Times Book Review’s review of it sums it up excellently: “…“Swamplandia!,” a novel about alligator wrestlers, a balding brown bear named Judy Garland, a Bird Man specializing in buzzard removal, a pair of dueling Florida theme parks, rampaging melaleuca trees, a Ouija board and the dead but still flirtatious Louis Thanksgiving. Sound appealing? No, it does not. Unless Ms. Russell had you at “alligator wrestlers” — not likely — you may well recoil at every noxiously fanciful item on that list.” And yet, it’s still a wonderful book; the way that Russell weaves her words so carefully. Looming throughout the book is the absence of Ava’s mother, the one who really held the family together.


This is Karen Russell’s first novel, though she has a written a book of short stories. I would definitely recommend this book to everyone, even if the story-line doesn’t sound appealing to you. You’ll quickly get drawn in. In some ways Swamplandia! reminded me of Salvage the Bones, though it was better. Swamplandia! is a book on our summer reading lists, by the way (in case that’s an extra incentive to read it.)

Read Swamplandia!:
  • if you like fanciful books
  • if you are interested in Florida
  • if you are interested in gator wrestling (not likely though)

397 pages. 

 
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!
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