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Bookmarks Issue: 
52-May-June-2011
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A-SwamplandiaKaren Russell, who was featured in the New Yorker's 20 Under 40 Fiction Issue and has earned accolades from Granta and the National Book Foundation, published a story collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, in 2006. Swamplandia!, Russell's debut novel, expands on her short story, "Ava Wrestles the Alligator."

The Story: When Hilola Bigtree, the star attraction of Swamplandia!, a family-owned alligator-wrestling theme park in the Florida Everglades, dies, she leaves the Bigtree clan--a husband; a son, Kiwi; and daughters Ava and Ossie--to manage the 98 gators and to save the park from bankruptcy. But soon Ossie falls in love with a ghost known as the Dredgeman; Kiwi defects to the competitor park, World of Darkness; and their father disappears. Determined to salvage the family business and to extricate her older sister from her spectral romance, Ava, 13, embarks on a rescue mission through the waters of the Ten Thousand Islands in a small skiff--and must mentally and physically stay afloat in order to survive.
Knopf. 316 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 9780307263995

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"If Charles Dickens had made it as far as the Everglades during one of his US reading tours, he may have been inspired to produce characters suspiciously similar to the Bigtrees. ...
[D]azzlingly original."
Nicole Lamy

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[Swamplandia! is] also about moral choices, about siding with a precious, challenging wilderness that must be preserved for ecological balance or an urban environment where there's money to be made. ... The passages involving the Bigtree girls are steeped in nature and routinely ravishing; the sections dealing with the World of Darkness stick like gum to the soles of a shoe, reflecting the tawdriness of an overwrought theme park." Carlo Wolff

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"I was lulled by the dreamy blur Russell conjures between fantasy and reality--all her Swamplandia! characters have a fuzzy grasp on the concrete. Even more, I didn't expect a story that charms, that elicits regular chuckles, to cut me to ribbons." Karen R. Long

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"The bewitching Swamplandia! is a tremendous achievement for anyone, period. ... While the novel deals in ghosts, whether actual ectoplasms or just unexorcisable memories, the characters, and their tale of family lost and found, remain triumphantly alive." Keith Staskiewicz

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"If Russell's style is a North American take on magical realism, then her commitment to life's nitty-gritties anchors the magic; we are more inclined to suspend disbelief at the moments that verge on the paranormal because she has turned Swamplandia! into a credible world. ... At times, the Kiwi (third person) and Ava (first person) sections read like two different books, and while this can be refreshing it does make the novel feel uneven." Emma Donoghue

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As a state, Florida is so very odd that mere close observation can show it in its full weird glory, but the power of Russell's prose makes the swamp unforgettably visceral. ... Russell is the kind of storyteller whose charm blinds and hypnotizes the reader into believing--and loving--every word she writes even at the same time that you recognize the flaws in the whole." Lauren Groff

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Russell has perfected a tone of deadpan wit and imperiled innocence that I find deeply endearing, but readers allergic to self-consciously quirky characters should take precautions. ... After half-a-dozen detours, skating along a thin layer of plausibility, Russell runs through the final pages as though she's being chased by a seven-foot gator." Ron Charles

Critical Summary

Karen Russell is an extraordinarily talented writer, one whose unique take on magical realism, character development, and glistening style impressed the critics. A coming-of-age novel, Swamplandia! showcases her ample talents; many reviewers thought that the quirky characters--including the loyal, brave, if sometimes too precocious Ava--were worthy of Dickens--not a light compliment. The only major debate centered on plot. Many reviewers, while admiring Russell's nimble command of language, faulted a "gluey" (Cleveland Plain Dealer) story line that slows the momentum halfway through, when the plot zigzags between Ava and her brother and describes the Everglades ecosystem. Still, Swamplandia! is one of the more charming recent novels, "a story that is as ordinary as it is heartbreaking" (Boston Globe) from a writer to watch.