Day 404: Swamplandia!

Cover for SwamplandiaBest Book of the Week!

Swamplandia! is the third book I’ve read in the past few months that has a strong young female voice (with Tell the Wolves I’m Home and Where’d You Go, Bernadette). All of them were very good.

Before I start, though, a comment on the cover for the hardcover copy of the book, which is not the one I read or the one shown here. I was not really clear about whether this book is considered appropriate for young adults or not (probably), but the hardcopy cover makes Swamplandia! look like a children’s book, showing a very young girl piggyback on a character who looks somewhat like the Mad Hatter, both watching an alligator. Let me warn you that Swamplandia! is definitely not for young children.

Thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree and her family live on an island in a hokey-sounding amusement park in the Florida Everglades called Swamplandia! There, they dress up as Native Americans (their grandfather, who founded the park, was a German-American farmer from Ohio) and breed and wrestle alligators. Ava’s mother Hilola was the main attraction until she became ill with cancer and eventually died.

Since then the family has tried to cope with its grief while also attempting to save the floundering park. Homeschooled and with little contact with the mainland, the Bigtree kids have been raised in a sort of dream land. They all possess a thorough and subversive knowledge of the history of Florida and of its flora and fauna but not many skills for dealing with the outside world. Kiwi spends almost all his time reading, Osceola believes she has a ghost lover, and Ava is aiming to become a world-famous alligator wrestler.

When tourists stop arriving on the ferry, Chief Bigtree, the children’s father, makes one of his mainland journeys to raise money to save the park, but not before Kiwi apparently abandons them to get a job with the park’s competitor, The World of Darkness. Sixteen-year-old Osceola and Ava are left alone on the island until Osceola floats away on an old barge to join her lover.

Frantic to save Osceola, young Ava joins up with a mysterious man named the Bird Man, who claims to know his way into hell, which is where Ava assumes she must go to bring Osceola back from her ghost lover. As our apprehension grows, we follow Ava’s journey while periodically cutting over to observe Kiwi’s serio-comic adventures at the hell-themed World of Darkness.

Russell creates a lush world in Swamplandia! and a compelling narrator in the innocent/wise Ava. The language of the novel is gorgeous, its heroine engaging. You will find yourself immersed in a damp world bursting with life, and you won’t want to leave it until you know what happens to Ava.

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8 thoughts on “Day 404: Swamplandia!

  1. Cecilia October 4, 2013 / 12:11 pm

    I have seen this book around a lot but never knew what it was about. Thanks for the warning that it is not a children’s book, because I do think that I would have picked it up (at least to check out) for my 9-year-old!

    • whatmeread October 4, 2013 / 12:16 pm

      I know! I wasn’t aware of that cover until I tried to find the one on my version online and had difficulty. The more I looked at the other one, the more it bothered me! I’m sure they changed it after the hardcopy version came out because people bought it for their kids. I think it’s fine for a teenager, but maybe one who is older than than the girl in the book. You’ll see why if you read it.

  2. Audra (Unabridged Chick) October 7, 2013 / 10:50 am

    I’m dying to read this — actually, all of Russell’s works — after she got the MacArthur genius grant.

    • whatmeread October 7, 2013 / 10:52 am

      Yes, I remember being interested in a previous book, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. She has a new one coming out in February. I’m going to have to find a copy of St. Lucy’s!

      • Audra (Unabridged Chick) October 7, 2013 / 10:53 am

        The title alone intrigues me, too. I’m not super fond of short fiction, so I might try this one (Swamplandia) first.

      • whatmeread October 7, 2013 / 10:57 am

        No, neither am I, although I am occasionally surprised. If I am enjoying reading something, I want it to go on as long as possible! Sometimes short fiction seems like it is leaving too much out, although that’s the point, I guess. The new book is short stories, too, plus I see there is something she is co-authoring that comes out around the same time.

      • Audra (Unabridged Chick) October 7, 2013 / 10:59 am

        Yes, I’m with you — I want to wallow in the story! But a good short story can sometimes make me more emotional than a novel — that ‘snap’ of oomph as a short piece wraps up is very effective.

      • whatmeread October 7, 2013 / 11:00 am

        Yes, that’s exactly right!

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