Long before the Wild West was the epitome of adventure and intrigue, the land of mystery and danger romanticized in novels and films, there was the original land of wonder; the Florida swamps. The swamps are very much like the old “frontier” days described by those like Zane Grey and Owen Wister; isolated, filled with danger and opportunity. The Florida swamps are now getting the recognition they deserve in newcomer Karen Russell’s debut novel Swamplandia!. The novel depicts the trials and tribulations through the eyes of the 13-year-old daughter of the Bigtree family, the proprietors of a small family that runs an alligator-themed amusement park called Swamplandia deep in the back waters of Florida.

The Bigtree family has fallen on hard times. Their “swamp carnival” has lost nearly all its attendance, following the death of the strong matriarch and headlining alligator wrestler. Swimming in debt, the oldest son leaves the swamp for the mysterious mainland that the family has only seen a handful of times. Kiwi, the oldest son, gets a job at the new corporate amusement park, World of Darkness, and his father goes after him. This leaves our 13-year-old narrator Ava and her 16-year-old sister Osceola to fend for themselves in the empty expanse of the swamp. Ava then plots to save Swamplandia her own way, but Osceola begins dating a boy who may or may not be a ghost and runs away with him. Ava must then journey to the “underworld” deep within the swamp under the guide of the Bird Man, a pied piper of sorts for the buzzards and gulls of Florida.

Russell’s writing style is unique poise, to say the least. She weaves Floridian history into this semi-magical realism tale with wit and charm, while simultaneously using the Bigtree family as a means to criticize modern living and the materialistic ways of “mainlanders,” who they eventually become. She crafts a beautiful world of the swamp in such stunning detail that you have to often check your own shoe for mud.

Then the unthinkable happens. Russell pulls the literary hail mary and has her main character violated. It does not pay off. This one scene was so far-out there that it completely alienated me from the rest of the story, to the point where I could almost not finish the novel. It was disturbing and did not go at all with the rest of the book.
The rape ruined the novel for me, for now all I can think about is that one scene, and everything else has been eclipsed. The entire novel has been boiled down to one event, which is not the intention of Russell. But if you’re brave, by all means read on and enjoy Swamplandia! I just don’t have the stomach for that at the moment.

Kirk Bado