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Swamplandia! (Vintage Contemporaries)

Russell, Karen

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A New York Times Best Book of the Year
One of Granta's Best Young American Novelists
Selected for the New Yorker's 20 Under 40
Nominated for the Orange Prize


Thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree has lived her entire life at Swamplandia!, her family’s island home and gator-wrestling theme park in the Florida Everglades. But when illness fells Ava’s mother, the park’s indomitable headliner, the family is plunged into chaos; her father withdraws, her sister falls in love with a spooky character known as the Dredgeman, and her brilliant big brother, Kiwi, defects to a rival park called 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 shimmering edge of reality.

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Review:

Guest Reviewer: Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen was born and raised in Florida. He is the author of twelve novels, including the bestselling Star Island, Nature Girl, Skinny Dip, Sick Puppy, and Lucky You, and three bestselling children’s books: Hoot, Flush, and Scat. He also writes a weekly column for The Miami Herald.

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.

Swamplandia! is the story of Ava Bigtree, a 12-year-old alligator wrestler who embarks on an improbable journey through the mangrove wilderness of southwest Florida in search of a lost sister. Young Osceola has run off with a ghost-figure named Louis Thanksgiving, and only Ava knows where to look for them, dreading what she might find. Passages of this fine novel call to mind Conrad, Garcia Marquez and even – for those who have kids – Judy Blume. There’s not a forgettable character in the cast, from Ava’s flamboyant father, Chief Bigtree, who runs the family’s failing tourist trap, to the bedraggled and cryptic Bird Man, who guides Ava on her harrowing trip.

Having spent many days in the Ten Thousand Islands, I was enchanted by Russell’s dream-like descriptions of the tangled and serpentine creeks, the funky and exotic flora, the long stare of circling buzzards. Her prose is both shimmering and stark: “A huge hole in the middle of the ceiling opened onto a clear night sky; it looked as if some great predator had peeled the thatched roof back, sniffed once and lost interest.”

Or the way she describes a “cauldron” of moths with “sapphire-tipped wings, a sky-flood of them…They had fixed wings like sharp little bones, these moths, and it was astonishingly sad when you accidentally killed one.”

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.

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.

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