by Karen Russell
Swamplandia! is an Everglades tourist attraction run by the Bigtree clan. After the death of Hilola, their star wrestler, audiences dwindle. Young Ava looks for a way to save the family and the business. Her father, the Chief, has disappeared. Her brother, Kiwi, has gone to work for a competitor, the World of Darkness; and her sister, Osceola, has fallen in love with the ghost of a man and gone off into the swamps. Ava embarks on a journey to find her sister and restore the family.
1. Now that you’ve read the novel, go back and reread the epigraph. Why do you think Russell chose this quote?
2. Some of these characters first appeared in the story “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” in Russell’s collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Have you read that story? How does it compare to the novel?
3. “‘Tradition is as important, kids,’ Chief Bigtree liked to say, ‘as promotional materials are expensive.’” (page 5) Did the Chief show this in his actions? Which of the Bigtree tribe members paid the most respect to tradition?
4. How did Chief’s myth-making affect his children? How might things have been different if he’d been more truthful?
5. On page 28, Chief introduces his theory of Carnival Darwinism, which he thought would save Swamplandia! How might it have been successful? Why wasn’t it?
6. Where else does the notion of evolution come into play?
7. Belief—in Carnival Darwinism, in ghosts—plays a large role in the novel. What prompts Ossie’s beliefs? Ava’s? Where is the turning point in their belief systems?
8. Why do you think Ossie sees Louis and other ghosts, but never Hilola?
9. What does Ava’s red alligator represent? And the melaleuca trees?
10. Why do you think Russell interrupted the novel for the story of the Dredgeman’s Revelation? What exactly is the “revelation”?
11. There are biblical references throughout the book, especially in the World of Darkness sections. Why does Russell include them?
12. How do Kiwi’s actions affect his family? What do we learn via his sojourn on the mainland?
13. On page 146, the Bird Man tells Ava, “Nobody can get to hell without assistance, kid.” How does this compare to the quote from Dante that opens the chapter? What does it tell us about his character?
14. The three Bigtree children are innocent for their ages. Which one matures the most over the course of the novel?
15. The Bird Man calls the ending of the Dredgeman’s Revelation “a vanishing point.” (page 176) What does he mean by that?
16. Both the Bird Man and Vijay act as guides to a Bigtree sibling. How does each approach his role?
17. When Ava said “I love you” to the Bird Man on page 196, what did you expect to happen as a result?
18. On page 198, Ava recites a credo: “I believe the Bird Man knows a passage to the underworld. I believe that I am brave enough to do this. I have faith that we are going to rescue Ossie.” Was she right about any of this?
19. Did the Bird Man believe in the underworld, or did he have an ulterior motive all along?
20. How does Kiwi’s use of language change during the novel? What does it reflect?
21. Like the Dredgeman, several of the Bigtrees have revelations. Whose is the most surprising?
22. What is the significance of the Mama Weeds passage? What do we learn from it?
23. Why doesn’t Ava ever tell anyone what the Bird Man did?
Karen Russell (born July 10, 1981) is an American novelist and short story writer. Her debut novel, Swamplandia!, was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. No prize for fiction was awarded that year.
Russell, after graduation from Coral Gables Senior High School in Miami in 1999, received a B.A. in Spanish from Northwestern University in 2003 and graduated from the MFA program at Columbia University in 2006.
Her stories have been featured in The Best American Short Stories, Conjunctions, Granta, The New Yorker, Oxford American, and Zoetrope.
She was named a National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" young writer honoree at a November 2009 ceremony for her first book of short stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Her second book and first novel,
Swamplandia!, about a shabby amusement park set in the Everglades, was long-listed for the Orange Prize 2011. It was also included in the New York Times' "10 Best Books of 2011," and won the New York Public Library's 2012 Young Lions Fiction Award.
A new collection of short stories by Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, was published in February 2013.
Taken from Wikipedia. Accessed 06/27/13
New York Times - Janet Maslin
New York Times - Emma Donoghue
A Conversation with Karen Russell
from the New Yorker magazine