You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Thursday, May 5, 2011


Swamplandia!Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In 1932 an Ohio farmer named Ernest Schedrach was sold a bill of goods. He bought one hundred acres of Florida farmland, moved his wife and son south, and discovered that most of his new property was under several feet of water. But the Schadrach's reinvented themselves as the Bigtree clan, Indians of undetermined heritage, and opened Swamplandia!, for years the number one gator-themed attraction in Southern Florida.

Not quite one hundred pages into Swamplandia!, I felt that I, too, had been sold a bill of goods. I had read some good things about Karen Russell's novel, and the first chapter available on Amazon was engaging and promised an enjoyable read. But the pleasures of Russell's quirky prose wear thin, and the Bigtree family's loose grasp on reality is more frustrating than intriguing. A visit from Child Protective Services would have really changed this family's situation.

After the death of his wife and the unavoidable reality of the ultimate loss of Swamplandia!, dad goes on a business trip and leaves the island in the hands of his son Kiwi and two daughers, Osceola and Ava, ages 16, 15, and 13 respectively. Kiwi decamps for the mainland; Osceola spends most of her time with ghosts, one of whom promises to marry her; and Kiwi, who tells the story, tries to hold things together.  Kooky characters become so tiresome. I preferred the broad comedy of Kiwi's adventures on the mainland more than the mix of magic realism and Southern gothic that unfolded on the island. And there is an incident so horrible, one that the reader must see coming for so many pages, that it throws the story off balance. And while I have no argument with happy endings, there is a chirpiness to Russell's conclusion that seems like an easy out for the author.

Many people love this book, but once I started reading it and looked more deeply into reader reviews I saw that the responses were more divided than I initially believed. Maybe it's a guy thing, but if Kiwi had not been in the story, I would not have waded through it.

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