Faith Ann Ruszkowski

As far as theme parks go, not many specialize in the art of alligator wrestling. However, Swamplandia!, the theme park featured in Karen Russell’s fiction novel by the same name, defies the traditional theme park model. The novel, which follows the stories of the alligator-wrangling Bigtree family, is awash in oddities and the unexpected. UT students will have a chance to hear Russell read from and answer questions about her critically acclaimed book at 7 p.m. Sept. 27 in the Joynes Reading Room.

The novel concentrates on the collapse of Swamplandia! after Hilola Bigtree — mother, alligator wrestler and main headliner for the amusement park — dies of cancer and her husband and kids try to reassemble the family business. As the audience for Swamplandia! performances dwindles to a halt, Hilola’s children, Ava, Ossie and Kiwi, each struggle to deal with the collapse of their fantastical existence in Swamplandia! and diverge on odd, sometimes otherworldly paths to reality. 

Plan II freshman Colleen O’Neill was drawn to the story for its originality. “Initially I decided to read it because it was on the Voltaire’s Coffee reading list for Plan II,” O’Neill said. “However, I read it because I thought it would be a fun but stimulating read that had a surreal and mystical twist to it.” 

Magical elements permeate Swamplandia!. “I love that description of the swamp-gothic atmosphere,” Russell said via email. “I grew up in South Florida, where there was always a tension between the imaginary and the real, between these concrete fictions, the theme parks and the irreducibly mysterious animals and plants (and humans!) that they contained.”     

While the setting and concepts in Swamplandia! are eccentric and mysterious, the relatable nature of the struggles Ava and her family face makes the plot widely appealing.

“I think what makes Swamplandia! appealing to college students is the same thing that makes the book so generally popular — it’s an adventure,” Matt Valentine, program coordinator for the Joynes Reading Room and Plan II Honors, said. 

Russell also notes that the protagonist Ava’s struggles are “quite universal for young children on the slippery threshold of adulthood — she is trying to separate fantasy from reality, to orient herself towards the truth, to understand what is happening to her family, her body, her life.”

The eclectic charm and wide appeal of Swamplandia! have not gone unnoticed by the literary community. The novel, Russell’s first, was one of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalists for fiction and its success has garnered Russell considerable praise. Not only has she achieved recognition as one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” fiction authors, but her writing in Swamplandia! has also been awarded with the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award and was a finalist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.

At 7 p.m. Thursday, students who want to put aside “[tackling] those thick textbooks,”, as Russell puts it, and pick up some critically acclaimed pleasure reading can venture over to the Joynes Reading Room. The question and answer session is open to all, alligator wrestlers and non-alligator wrestlers alike.

Printed on Thursday, September 27, 2012 as: Novel well-recieved by students, critics