2015 TBR Challenge Review: Swamplandia!

Swamplandia!, Karen Russell

Hardcover, 316 pages

Published February 1st 2011 by Knopf

Source: I don’t even remember!


From Goodreads…

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 year old, 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.

Another 2015 TBR Challenge book off my list!  I’m sad that saying I finished is the most exciting thing I can say about Swamplandia!  I thought I was sure to love this book – and I don’t even know why I was so sure.  I’m not a swamp person, I’m not a reptile person – but who doesn’t love a good coming of age story?  I tried Swamplandia! when it first came out but wasn’t in the mood, this time I made it my book club selection for the month so I’d be sure to get through (My apologies to anyone not at book club this month).

Ava Bigtree comes from a family of alligator wrestlers.  Her goal in life is to become as accomplished a wrestler as her late mother and in doing so to save her family’s theme park -Swamplandia!  Ava lives with her father Chief Bigtree, her brother Kiwi and her sister Osceola and all the “Seth’s” which is the family name for the gators.  Clearly this book was always going to be a bit different, I just didn’t expect it to be quite so bizarre.

Was this book really magical realism?  Was it just that I didn’t believe in the ghosts that Osceola was talking about that I missed the magic?   Ava’s teenage brother Kiwi runs away to work at a competing theme park- the World of Darkness.  The World of Darkness features such things as a blood red swimming pool and an entrance through the Hellmouth.  WTF.  Maybe that was why I couldn’t get into this book- who wants to swim in a blood red pool? Ewww.

I don’t want to say exactly what happened that finally totally turned me off the book, but I can say it was about page 268 and IT WAS JUST WRONG.  I had convinced myself you weren’t going there Swamplandia! and you kind of crushed me.  And then there was no resolution! The book just wrapped up too quickly for all the trudging through the swamp and through the freaking Hellmouth that you put me through.  Maybe I’ll enjoy Karen Russell more in short stories?  Her other books are still on my TBR!

Now what do I try to check off my list next?!  I’ll take any suggestions!


  1. Yikes! I know this was very popular when it was first released. I never did get around to reading it. I actually had a copy at one point in time, but it did not make it through my last big purge. Your review makes me think I dodged the bullet there.

  2. This is one of my favorite books, but I can see how THAT event would turn you off. I was totally shocked when I read it, but I actually think it shows what a strong writer Russell is; she did such a great job of putting me in Ava’s mind and making the story seem like magical realism that I was totally willing to believe the situation was safe. I think the fact that I was surprised when things got super real shows what a gifted story teller she is; she can make me believe anything, despite the common narratives of the real world.

    One of the odd things about this novel, that sets it apart from Russell’s other books, is that it kind of only pretends to be magical realism. (I’m not sure if Osceola’s ghosts are meant to be real, but I’m leaning toward no.) If you like stories that are really weird (girls raised by wolves, vampires, and girls who become silk worms), I think you’d like her short stories better.

    • Good! I wanted to talk to someone who enjoyed this one! I totally get what you’re saying that the magical realism is the belief that Ava was safe. That makes sense completely. Because I had totally convinced myself that we weren’t going THERE, and that she would be fine. I was really mad that there was no processing of what happened – though that fits with the Bigtree way of life totally and I shouldn’t be surprised.

      You have me at really weird stories for sure, I’ll have to request the short stories at the library.

  3. I feel like I’ve heard about so many people who love this book and the gator-wrestling theme park is definitely an interesting premise! But, I’m not a huge fan of magical realism and it sounds like this one didn’t really do it for you…

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