Karen Russell, Swamplandia!
A debut novel about coming of age, coming to grips, and wrestling gators
In the opening pages of her debut novel, Karen Russell creates a wonderfully primeval paradise and then starts pulling the Jenga pieces away in bold, beautiful sentences. Ava Bigtree and her siblings grow up in Swamplandia!, a charming little tourist trap on an undertamed island in the Florida Everglades, with a dad who calls himself Chief and a mom who wrestles alligators nightly. All around them is the teeming chaos of nature but, as long as the rest of civilization is a long ferry ride away, the Bigtrees are free and safe and happy.
This kind of thing can’t last, and when it all comes crashing down — mom gets cancer, a crass rival theme park opens up on the mainland, siblings start running away — it’s a special kind of heartbreak, for the Chief who tried his hardest to keep the tribe together, for Ava who’s so young and unworldly, and for the reader who, if only briefly, wanted nothing more than to watch Hilola Bigtree dive into that pool full of gators forever. Swamplandia! is about a lot of things: coming of age, coming to grips, learning you’re not the hero of the story. It’s also about that thick, murky line between fantasy and reality, and wanting to live in a world more lovely, more magical, and less precise than the one we’re stuck in.