Swamplandia! (Vintage Contemporaries)
February 2011 Indie Next List
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Summer 2012 Reading Group
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"Ms. Russell is one in a million. . . . A suspensfuly, deeply haunted book."--The New York Times
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.
Praise For Swamplandia! (Vintage Contemporaries)…
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
“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
Vintage, 9780307276681, 416pp.
Publication Date: July 26, 2011
About the Author
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.
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
Now that you’ve read the novel, go back and reread the epigraph. Why do you think Russell chose this quote?
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?
“‘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?
How did Chief’s myth-making affect his children? How might things have been different if he’d been more truthful?
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?
Where else does the notion of evolution come into play?
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?
Why do you think Ossie sees Louis and other ghosts, but never Hilola?
What does Ava’s red alligator represent? And the melaleuca trees?
Why do you think Russell interrupted the novel for the story of the Dredgeman’s Revelation? What exactly is the “revelation”?
There are biblical references throughout the book, especially in the World of Darkness sections. Why does Russell include them?
How do Kiwi’s actions affect his family? What do we learn via his sojourn on the mainland?
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?
The three Bigtree children are innocent for their ages. Which one matures the most over the course of the novel?
The Bird Man calls the ending of the Dredgeman’s Revelation “a vanishing point.” (page 221) What does he mean by that?
Both the Bird Man and Vijay act as guides to a Bigtree sibling. How does each approach his role?
When Ava said “I love you” to the Bird Man on page 245, what did you expect to happen as a result?
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?
Did the Bird Man believe in the underworld, or did he have an ulterior motive all along?
How does Kiwi’s use of language change during the novel? What does it reflect?
Like the Dredgeman, several of the Bigtrees have revelations. Whose is the most surprising?
What is the significance of the Mama Weeds passage? What do we learn from it?
Why doesn’t Ava ever tell anyone what the Bird Man did?