Swamplandia! (Karen Russell)

Swamplandia! is the first novel by Karen Russell.

The Bigtree family of alligator wrestlers is slowly falling apart: Grandfather Sawtooth had to be moved to a nursing home, mother Hilola recently died and The Chief doesn’t really know what to do with his children. Or how to keep the alligator wrestling business afloat. That leaves the children pretty much to their own devices. Kiwi decides that he is better off on the mainland than in the swamp, where he might be able to get a formalized education. Osceola starts conversing with ghosts and withdraws more and more into their world. And the youngest, Ava, dreams of saving the business by becoming the greatest alligator wrestler alive. But how is a thirteen year old supposed to save practically an entire ecosystem?

Swamplandia! is not an easy book, even if it appears so at first. Much like its protagonists, it loses its innocence and light-heartedness as it progresses. It’s worth it to go on that journey with them.


Swamplandia! manages to make the reader experience with the book what Ava experiencs with her life: at the beginning you kinda believe that there is magic. I mean, you know that there probably isn’t any, but the possibility is still there that this time it might actually be magic. And then you meet the Birdman who is straight out of a fairy tale and even though he’s a bit odd and things, from a rational pov, are very suspicious indeed, you very much want to believe in him, in this journey he takes Ava on. And then reality hits (on an emotional level quite literally). The Birdman rapes Ava. There is a rescue, but what is being rescued is broken. Finishing the book is a little like a punch in the gut, crudely pulling you from the safety that fantasy provided.

And yet the ending is not all hopeless and dark. Just around the corner, there’s a new, very tentative shelter: the siblings who are taking care of each other. Cautiously and with a lot of vulnerability involved on all sides, but still. And there’s always a senes of humor not too far away.

Swamplandia! is a special book. I didn’t always like reading it (because I really didn’t want to be confronted by that reality, especially not towards the end) but it was always engaging, full of lively and interesting characters that I liked. You probably have to be in a certain state of mind to really appreciate it, but it certainly hit me at the right moment.

Summarizing: definitely give it a try.


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