Saturday, August 27, 2011


The exclamation point is in the title of the book, but I think I would've put it there regardless.  I just finished Swamplandia! by Karen Russell yesterday morning.  It was excellent.

Ava Bigtree is thirteen.  She lives on an island in Florida where her family runs the Swamplandia! theme park.  Ava's a budding alligator wrestler, like her parents and brother, and her mom Hilola is the star of the diving show.  Ava and her brother Kiwi and sister Osceola (Ossie) have grown up on the island, home schooled, rarely on the mainland.  The tourists seem like they're part of a different culture to them.

Ava's mother's death from cancer starts out the book.  It leads to Ossie's obsession with ghosts and seances, and to Kiwi's fixation with giving up the struggling theme park and moving to the mainland.  Ava tries to deal with both of them, and with her father, Chief Bigtree, who refuses to recognize the financial trouble the family is in.

Kiwi leaves, and gets a job at a rival theme park on the mainland.  After that, every other chapter is from his point of view, as he learns to deal with his teenage mainland coworkers and tries to save money to help his family.

Then Chief Bigtree leaves, on a business trip.  Once Ava and Ossie are alone on the island, Ossie's stories of her ghost boyfriends grow more all-encompassing, and more frightening.

Ava's situation on the island once her and Ossie are alone makes up the bulk of the book, minus Kiwi's mainland chapters.  It's riveting and intense.  Sometimes I resented the intrusion of the chapters telling about Kiwi's job as a janitor, his misadventures and social problems.  But I think the book needs them.  To have the intensity of Ava's story unadulturated would've been rough.  This way, when I read it before bed, I could make sure to end on a Kiwi chapter, so I wouldn't be too scared.  (One night I didn't, and started to wonder if perhaps my boyfriend was himself a ghost.  You can't be too sure...)

Should you read it?  If it sounds at all appealing, yes.  Karen Russell is a fantastic author.  I can't wait for her next book.

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