Tag Archives: Karen Russell

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.