Published on Monday, February 3, 2014 - 4:00pm
This month, we’re reading Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, a dark and crazy romp through the contemporary Florida Everglades. The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012, and last year the author was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” Raised in Miami, Russell has also been the recipient of the Bard Fiction Prize, the Berlin Prize, and a National Magazine Award for fiction.
We end our series with a book that the author herself describes as “Hitchcock meets the swamp.” Chances are you’ll be taken with the Bigtree clan, probably the most bizarre group of scammers spotted south of the Mason-Dixon Line (in fiction, anyway) in many years. The book is a marvelous mix of hapless tourists, ravenous alligators, amusement parks run amok, and lost kids thrown to the mercy of predators both imaginary and real. The book is chilling and wacky, visceral and ghostly, sarcastic and terrifying.
For those of you interested in learning more about Karen Russell and her work, here are a few links you can follow that may be useful. (If you have trouble with the link, highlight the link, right click on it, select on “Copy Hyperlink” and paste it into your browser.)
- A revealing interview with the author from last year about her writing process.
- A New Yorker interview with Russell about writing, family and influences.
- A PBS interview with Russell.
- An interview with Granta about growing up in South Florida and the nature of fantasy.
- A short video explaining the importance of alligators and tourism among the Seminole Indian nation.
- A YouTube video of alligator wrestling—animal lovers beware!.
Study Questions for Swamplandia!
- Given the Bigtrees’ commitment to hokum and fraud, what makes the family so endearing?
- Hilola and Chief Bigtree shamelessly exploit their children. Do they teach them anything of value in return?
- Salvatore Scibona described his style of writing as “expanded realism.” Given the plot of Swamplandia!, does Karen Russell’s novel make any pretense of being “realistic”?
- What does Russell’s story tell us about the nature of taking risks? Are the risk-takers in this novel rewarded?
- Is Osceola a product of Swamplandia -- or a misfit who will do anything to get out of the park?
- Do we know whether Louis Thanksgiving is a real person, like The Bird Man? Why is his personal story important to the book?
- What clues are offered that The Bird Man is not what he pretends to be? Is Ava alert to them? How is her view of him, even by the end, a complicated one?
- Is Kiwi’s conversion from nerd to hero a convincing one? How does his transformation change the book?
- There are many “underworlds” in Russell’s tale. Does anyone escape theirs without giving up something precious?
- Does life on the mainland offer any better prospects than alligator wrestling? How well will the Bigtree children likely adapt?
Thanks to the Friends of Cleveland Park Library, we're wrapping up another lively and intelligent series of discussions. Everyone is welcome. You don’t have to be a member of the Friends to attend, and you’re welcome even if you’ve never come before.
So please join us on Feb. 6.
Copies of the book should be available at the library.