Book Review: Swamplandia!


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 Dredgman, 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.


I decided to read Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! because it was one of three books snubbed by the Pulitzer board for the 2012 fiction award. Not only did I want to learn more about the kind of book being suggested for the Pulitzer these days; I also wanted to understand the board’s decision. After reading Swamplandia!, I can’t say I do understand. If this book had been selected to win the prize, I would have applauded the decision.

What can I say? This book made a home in me. Maybe I’m biased because I saw myself and my own family in Russell’s story, but isn’t that something a great book is supposed to do? Niggle into your brain and heart, tell you something about yourself, plant something significant?

Swamplandia! is the unique telling of how one family deals with tragedy and loss. Russell turns grief and mourning into a multifaceted diamond. She rightfully gives them a complex, layered treatment. The settings are almost hyperbole–crisp, tangible hyperbole that plunks you right into the Everglades and The World of Darkness–but the characters are so real and honest, you’re convinced you know these people.

Russell’s prose is something of a wonder. It’s the opposite of put-on. Her language and metaphors are so spot-on, they’re almost frank.

I’m pretty sure you have to read this book.

What I Learned

I learned that realism and magic can be blended seamlessly. That part of the synopsis from the back cover about the story taking us “to the shimmering edge of reality”–I couldn’t have said it better. Even though there are some truly mystical moments in the book, there was never a point where I thought, well this could never happen in real life. I struggle with this in my own writing, maybe because believability is so important to me. I almost think of it as the golden key.

Reading this book also compelled me to go with my gut when describing setting. I sometimes think nobody will understand what I mean when I describe things as I see them, but it’s so important to trust your mind’s eye when writing.


I’m sharing this excerpt with you because it’s a great example of the effortless beauty of Russell’s writing.

All day the horizon was inches from our noses. We’d been poling the leafy catacombs of the mangrove tunnels for hours. Any changes–palings of the sun that dropped the temperature a degree or two, or a brilliant lizard hugging the bark–felt like progress. More than once I’d think a tunnel was truly impenetrable. We’d pole into the green cone of water lapping at the trees’ wickery roots: the end of our journey! I’d think. And then we’d slide through a stew of crimson propagules, duck through a wishbonelike mangrove root, pop out. At one point an osprey’s nest crashed onto the poor red Seth’s carrier, knocked loose by our boat; that time we had to pole out stern first.

The Bird Man could always find us a way through. Often it took several tries: a tunnel would appear to be plumb shut and he would lift a branch, pull the skiff into sudden darkness, and slingshot us forward into the undergrowth. Blossoms dropped in a delicate static around us.

Past Pulitzer Fiction winners have included Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex (one of my favorites), and Toni Morrison’s Beloved.