From the moment I read about Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, I knew I had to read it. I grew up in Florida, where alligator farms are all over the place. I went to college in gator land, where my dorm was down the street from the notorious lake of alligators. Needless to say, Swamplandia! intrigued me.

Once I began reading Swamplandia!, I could not help but think that the audience might include fans of Geek Love. I was not surprised to see that in her acknowledgments, Russell lists Geek Love author Katherine Dunn as an influence. No surprise, Geek Love is a favorite of mine.

Swamplandia! is not a light-hearted tale. There are definitely things wrong in the Bigtree family after matriarch Hilola Bigtree’s death. Hilola, the alligator wrestler, is the main attraction for Swamplandia! The family is unable to continue enticing tourists to their swampy island without Hilola. I don’t want to spoil anything for potential readers, but very worrisome events occur after the tourists stop arriving.

The book seemed somewhat slow-going at first, but the descriptions were vivid enough to keep me reading. It was all worth it. Swamplandia! is a new favorite for me. Many readers seem to have arrived at reading this book after enjoying Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. I am in the opposite camp. After reading Swamplandia!, I cannot wait to get my hands on her short story collection.

My rating: 5 stars


A triumphant debut novel and follow-up to Karen Russell’s universally acclaimed short story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.

The Bigtree alligator wrestling dynasty is in decline – think Buddenbrooks set in the Florida Everglades – and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, is swiftly being encroached upon by a sophisticated competitor known as the World of Darkness. Ava, a resourceful but terrified twelve, must manage seventy gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief. Her mother, Swamplandia!’s legendary headliner, has just died; her sister is having an affair with a ghost called the Dredgeman; her brother has secretly defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their sinking family afloat; and her father, Chief Bigtree, is AWOL. To save her family, Ava must journey on her own to a perilous part of the swamp called the Underworld, a harrowing odyssey from which she emerges a true heroine.

Selected as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists, Karen Russell is an irrepressible new voice in contemporary fiction.


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