By Karen Russell

The Short Take:

The Bigtree family owns the Florida gator park Swamplandia! and when the family matriarch and star performer dies every character goes to hell, or at least some version of the underworld. Their dream/nightmare-like journeys become progressively darker as the book moves forward but the outstanding writing shines throughout. Plus, Ava, the main protagonist, is an irresistible character


First of all, don’t judge this book by it’s cover. I did and was expecting a quirky family story in the manner of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. While you might draw a few comparisons, this first novel is something else entirely. But that’s not a bad thing at all.

Danger and darkness take the larger roles in Russell’s book, yet there are also plenty of amusing moments scattered throughout — from bright humor to sharp irony. Russell’s vividly crafted descriptions of the 1000 Islands area in southwest Florida are similar in nautre — bright light piercing dark and dangerous landscapes. She surrounds you with its sights, scents, and mystery.

The Bigtree family itself is as quirky as they come, living an isolated life with only the most tenuous connections to normalcy. Older brother Kiwi is a voracious learner and not happy with the family’s circumstances. Middle child Osceola is a romantic dreamer with a mystical leanings. Ava, the youngest at 12, just wants to be as good a gator wrestler as her mom. Dad is largely uncommunicative. And, as I mentioned earlier, they each take a journey into the underworld — yet in entirely different forms.

This is a rich, imaginative book. It starts relatively lightly then carries you into deepening feelings of dread. But there is no way you can abandon little Ava — her spunk, family loyalty, and determination keep you buoyed no matter how dark and murky the future looks.

A Little Plot:

Swamplandia! is in trouble: its star performer (and mother to the Bigtree brood) has died, debts are high, and a new nearby theme park — The World of Darkness — has opened nearby siphoning off what few tourists Swamplandia! drew. The Bigtree family is in crisis.

Osceola starts dating ghosts, or at least thinks she is. Kiwi leaves to work at The World of Darkness, a truly hellish theme park, to raise money to save Swmaplandia! Dad also leaves “on business” of an uncertain nature. When Osceola elopes with her ghost to get married in the underworld, Ava is determined to find her sister and reunite her family. To do that, she must take the most dangerous journey of them all.

Budding gator-wrestler that she is, Ava  is up to the task.

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