Review: Swamplandia!


By Karen Russell
(Vintage, Paperback, 9780307276681, July 2011, 416pp.)

The Short of It:

A departure from my normal reading. Entertaining and often sweet but in the end, not all that satisfying.

The Rest of It:

The Bigtrees run a theme park called Swamplandia! Located on a small island, just off the South Florida coast, their park was once a popular destination for many, but after the death of their star performer, Hilola Bigtree, the park begins its downward spiral into bankruptcy, especially when a new, glitzier theme park opens nearby. Still reeling from the loss of their mother, 13-year-old Ava, and her siblings Kiwi and Ossie, decide to take matters into their own hands.

Ava is young and impressionable and fierce in her passion to save the park. Much of the story is told from her point of view, so there’s no missing the fact that the death of her mother left a huge hole in her heart. Although her father Chief Bigtree is around, his focus is on selling the park, not so much what his kids are going through. So Ava is left to figure it out on her own and she believes she has found the panacea in the form of a tiny red alligator. Plus, her mother taught her how to wrestle gators before she passed, so maybe she can save the park by taking Hilola’s place.

Kiwi is 17-years old and as the older brother, feels responsible for resolving the financial difficulties. He accepts a job at the competing theme park and figures he can rake in the money and payoff the debts. What he finds out rather quickly, is that minimum wage won’t do much in the way of saving them, but the real world experience of being off the island, is somewhat exciting to him.

While all of this is going on, Ossie, Ava’s older sister runs off with a ghost which prompts Ava to run after her. Yep, she runs off with a ghost.

I don’t know what to say. I liked so much of this book but the last third of the story felt rushed and it sort of just fell apart.

What I liked:

I liked that their weird, strange world was normal to them. The comings and goings of the tourists seemed to have almost a lulling effect on them. It’s what they knew and it’s what they loved.

I loved Ava’s voice and as the story went on, I loved Kiwi’s too. His side of the story is not as sweet as Ava’s but it’s clear that he also misses his mother and his dedication to helping his family is very touching.

I enjoyed the tidbits of info that Russell shared about the alligators themselves and the art of alligator wrestling. It provided a bit of substance to a story that would otherwise be a bit too “circus-y” for me.

What I did not like:

I’m not really sure what Ossie was doing. She ran off with a ghost, I suppose with the hope of finding her mother’s spirit, but this part of the story was not well-developed and I found that it didn’t mingle well with the other parts of the story.

Something happens while Ava is out looking for her sister and it was totally unnecessary. I didn’t see a point to what happened and it just seemed to be tossed in there for what? Shock value?

I felt that the end came up too fast. I didn’t feel as if the characters really grew at all or that they were okay with their fate. It could be argued that their place was on the island and them leaving it is what caused them all to fall apart, but the decision to take the story in this direction, didn’t feel intentional to me. It just felt as if it lost its steam.


What could have been a really good book, was just okay for me. Entertaining to a point but not a “wow” book.

Source: Obtained in a book exchange.
Disclosure: This post contains Indiebound affiliate links.

35 thoughts on “Review: Swamplandia!”

  1. I haven’t any interest in reading this one either, though it has gotten some good reviews. Sorry that characters didn’t develop well…I hate when that happens.

    1. I found the first half, when they were on their little island, to be the strongest. I expected to love it though. Quirky characters, strange family business, etc.

  2. I am in the middle of this one, so I skimmed your review. I am finding it weird, but also a bit bland, if those two can even exist together! I will be back to read your full thoughts by the end of the week. I am due to finish this one soon. I do think that Ossie is a rather strange girl, and the fact that she is ran off to elope with a ghost…well, I just don’t know what to make of that! Thanks for sharing your honest opinion on this one, Ti.

  3. Good review Ti. You laid out the pros & cons well. There’s been a lot of reviews on this one, and I guess in the end it doesn’t seem like a book for me, though it does seem interesting to a point.

    1. The first half was strong. Probably why it was shortlisted for the Pulitzer but in the end, it didn’t take the prize.

  4. We have something down here in Orlando called Gatorland and it reminds me a lot of what is going on at Swamplandia. I have seen it all…the wrestling, the chicken jumparoo, etc. The book felt dreamy and fairy tailish and lulled me into a zone, and that whole weird and horrible shit towards the end pulled the rug out from under me. I did not like. Then the end felt all wrapped up and too convenient and happy. But the writing was gorgeous. So I don’t know. It was strange, but I am still thinking about it.

    1. So you felt the same way I did about it. I am still thinking about it too, because I wanted a different ending for the family and especially for young Ava.

  5. I wanted to read this book when it was first published but as I read reviews, few of which really raved about it, it became a book to put on my tbr but not to rush out and buy or borrow. And then bloggers I trust read and reviewed it and any enthusiasm I had left plummeted!

    Ava sounds like a terrific character and the one you enjoyed the most. But I don’t think she’s reason enough to read the book. It almost sounds as if the author tried to do too much with too many characters and got lost in the process.
    But I think it was the older sister running off with a ghost that pretty much killed it for me. Didn’t know about tht part. A ghost in a ‘gator park?!
    This is a terrific review Ti and I really appreciate your honesty and how you listed why you liked the book and why you didn’t

    1. You hit the nail on the head and you haven’t even read it! Yes, too much going on and ridiculous plot points. That’s what did this one in.

  6. This one just never appealed to me and then reading about the girl running of with a ghost just made me chuckle! Loved your review!

  7. This book really confuses me – It did not get great reviews. So many people have told me that they did not really care for it… and yet it still remains very popular! Are people just reading it because they are curious?

    1. I think people are reading it now because of the fact that it made the Pulitzer shortlist and then NO award was issued. They probably want to know why. I know I read it for the strange setting and overall quirkiness of it.

  8. Great review, Ti. I really wanted to love this book because I loved St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves but I found parts of it thrown together, stuck on for effect, at loose ends with itself.. I think Russell’s style works really well in story form.

  9. I had really looked forward to this book because of the setting and because it seemed different. Every blogger review I’ve read seems to have sort of the same “eh” kind of feelings about it but it got so much praise like from award committees that it’s weird. I’m thinking I should trust that this might not be my favorite though. The ghost thing would probably make it too weird or unrealistic to me!

    1. I can’t deny that I expected more from this one, because I did but some of it was really good. It had its moments but as you said, not a fave but I am glad I read it.

  10. This book has received lots of attention. Even was up for big awards. But, I passed on it. Ron Charles loved it. I told him it didn’t do well in our area and it takes place here. Hm

    1. If Ron Charles likes a book, I usually do too but this one just petered out for me. It must have petered out for the Pulitzer panel members too.

  11. i agree with you about that “part” being unnecessary……literally the only time I have thrown a book across the room…

  12. It sounds like we had similar reactions to this one. I really enjoyed parts of it, but the second half faltered a lot for me. I loved her writing too, but ultimately I think it wasn’t successful. I ended up giving it four stars as a compromise, but I am curious to read what Russell does next.

    1. I’m curious to see what she comes up with next, too. I only gave Swamp 2 stars on GoodReads but according to them, 2 stars means OKAY and that is all it was to me.

  13. I’d heard so much praise for this book from “pro” critics but “real” readers don’t seem to connect with it too much. I think I shall pass on this … or just get it from the library.

  14. I had such a hard time with this one! It was like torture getting thru it for some reason. And I lived in Jacksonville Beach,FL for a while and love alligator anything. But this book- eh not so much

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