On My Bookshelf: Swamplandia by Karen Russell

June 16, 2015


Plot: The Bigtree family own an alligator park. Think those crazy road side attractions you never stop to see meets the movie Wild Hearts Can't be Broken. After Hiola Bigtree, the mother and star of the alligator show dies, things start to fall apart. Grandpa Hiola bites a tourist and is put in a nursing home. Kiwi, the brother and oldest sibling, leaves the island for the mainland to earn money to save the park and get an education. He finds employment at the World of Darkness, an amusement park on the mainland. Chief, the father also leaves for the mainland, for a "business" trip. Ossie, the older sister, becomes obsessed with the supernatural and begins dating ghosts. Ava, the youngest sister, also wants to save the park with a red skinned baby alligator and by replacing her mother in the show. After Ossie runs off with her ghost "fiancé" Ava is left alone with the Bird Man, the man hired by her father to kill off the vultures on their island. I won't ruin the ending for you.

Why I liked it: The park and the family's relationships with the alligators in it were charming. I am a sucker for all things animal. I think it started with being read Charlotte's Web as a child by my mother. On the mainland, Kiwi's World of Darkness was full of ironic humor, while back on the island, Ossie and Ava's days were filled with legends of the Florida swamp, reminiscent of the tall tales of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill.

What I wasn't so crazy about was how the book ended; I just felt like some of the plot elements were unresolved. I also thought the author was trying to take on too much. You can't do comedy, tragedy, the supernatural, myths/legends, etc. all in one story (unless maybe you are Shakespeare).

Classroom application: The novel, or excerpts of it, could be used as a mentor text  for writing about the supernatural or myths/legends in a modern day setting. I also think the novel is an interesting exercise in how the dynamics between characters changes when one is removed (first the mother Hiola, then the brother Kiwi, then the father Chief, then the sister Ossie). Students could examine a well-known story or one of their own to see how events would change with one of the main characters removed. Finally, the text is great for analysis of flat, round, static, dynamic, and stock characters because there are so many different and interesting characters throughout the book.

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