Swamplandia by Karen Russell c. 2011 (400 pages—Vintage)

A bildungsroman that centers on Ava Bigtree and her two siblings—brother (Kiwi) and sister (Ossie). The Bigtrees, who live on an island and own a gator-wrestling theme park, fall on hard times when their mother dies and their park is no longer profitable. After Hiloloa Bigtree’s death, her orphaned kids seek solace in an ever-changing world as they leave their small island and face separate struggles. Of all the characters, Ava—the youngest—is the most determined to restore honor to Swamplandia! The ending, while hopeful, remains open.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “But my sister, Osceola, was born snowy—not a weak chamomile blond but pure frost, with eyes that vibrated somewhere between maroon and violet” (6).
  • “The Beginning of the End can feel a lot like the middle when you are living in it” (8).
  • “He had the bellicose dignity of a kid who refuses to excuse or even to acknowledge his own extreme ugliness” (28).
  • “Then something shifted in our house’s atmosphere, and I felt outnumbered. Ghosts silked into our bedroom like cold water. Ossie sucked in her breath and twisted in the yellow sheets, just like my fantasy picture of a hurricane being born” (43).
  • “But I couldn’t shake the image, crates and crates of sunken black oranges. My heart gone wormy and rotten with fear” (51).
  • “The TV documentary I was watching was so boring that it felt like taking medicine, a thick syrup of information, a good antidote to thoughts” (75).
  • “Inside the World of Darkness, Time happened in a circle. Shifts were nine hours, and the nine hours contracted or accordioned outward depending on several variables that Kiwi had catalogued: difficulty of task, boredom of task, degree to which task humiliates me personally” (82).
  • “Spagehetti Surprise was a simple equation for indigestion, invented by Mom: noodles tossed like a blond wig over all your leftovers. Noodles as a culinary disguise for gross, inedible root vegetables: surprise! In a trash can this dish was raccoon kryptonite; even Grandpa couldn’t finish it” (118).
  • “He rode the rails southward on a voyage that has the fitful logic of sleep interrupted: suns set and suns rose. Forests dispersed into beaches and regrouped again in mountain passes. Lightning sent down its white spider legs outside the dining-car windows and crawled up the pine trunks, trailing fires” (131).
  • “These buzzards were nothing like the red-headed turkey vultures they’d been seeing since Long Glade; these were huge birds, black and wattled, and with their wings folded they made Louis think of the funeral umbrellas dripping rain along the stone walls of the St. Agnes Church in Clarinda” (146).
  • “She set off across the muck as briskly as a mainland woman who is late for her ferry. Her footprints filled with groundwater and as I watched a dozen tiny lakes opened between us” (161).
  • “So I did believe, finally, in the ghost of Louis Thanksgiving. I believed, in a waterfall rush, in the world of ghosts. An underworld—I pictured blue mist, rocks so huge the dredge barge rolled between them like a marble” (187).
  • “What struck me was a black-and-white photograph of a teenage girl in an asylum, bare-kneed in a claw-footed tub with her hair in a kind of translucent cap, like a shower cap but tight to her scalp. She had unblemished skin and these wafer-light eyes. You could see her blond hair through the cap, wrapped around metal curlers like waves of leashed, disciplined thoughts. The scary part was that you couldn’t tell, from this girl’s scrubbed and ordinary face, that anything was the matter with her” (190-191).
  • “Even in her trances, even while possessed, my sister was very shrewd about her prospects. A fantasy would collapse like a wave against the rocks of her intelligence. Madness, as I understood it from books, meant a person who was open to the high white whine of everything” (197).
  • “This category “white” gave him a whistling fear, not unlike agoraphobia. “White” made Kiwi Bigtree picture a vast Artic plain, a word in which one single person could never survive” (208).
  • “If a word is just a container for feeling, or a little matchstick that you strike against yourself—a tiny, fiery summons—then probably I could have said anything, called any name, who knows? I didn’t have a normal kid’s ideas of the Lord as an elderly mainland guy on a throne. The God I prayed to I thought of as the mother, the memory of love. She was my own mother sometimes, baggy-eyed and smiling in the Chief’s heavy canvas work clothes in the morning, one of the Chief’s cigarettes hanging from her mouth” (223).
  • “It gave me a little chill. Something about his grey eyes seemed urgent and vacant all at once. We had known each other for hours and miles now, but I thought he looked even stranger, even more like a stranger, as if the currents that governed such things were blowing him backward” (224).
  • “Whip began to motor over; above me, the Bird Man put on a big grin that made his face unrecognizable to me. It rejiggered his features so that they were at their most ordinary; even his eyes seemed pale and normal” (252).
  • “Red orb after red orb floated dreamily over their car roof. Vijay’s huge sneaker stayed flat on the accelerator. Stoplights swayed yellow and green over the Loomis intersections, like air plants, the mainlanders’ epiphytes” (265).
  • “Kiwi, who considered himself a grammarian of human emotion, knew that anger required a direct object” (270).
  • “Now that Kiwi had at last made it to a suburb it was easy to want the swamp. What was this fresh hell? The World of Darkness seemed like a cozy and benign place compared to the sprawl of these stucco boxes, these single-family houses” (287).
  • “The Bird Man rubbed at the creases on his forehead. Why did adults always do that? I wondered. What if a face really worked like that, like rumpled trousers, and you could smooth out your bad thoughts from the outside in?” (297).
  • “Like an animal, a secret can develop a self-preserving intelligence. Shaglike, mute and thick, a knowledge with fur: your secret” (331).
  • “Sometimes you are able to keep moving because you are not really yourself anymore. Your entire brain can shrink to one pinhead of cognition, one star in a night. I was acquainted with it, this bright spot, because once or twice before it had taken over during my fiercest wrestling matches. Encapsulated in this pinhead lived a brute, a swimmer, a thirst, a hunger, a fire-hater, a grass jumper” (333-334).
  • “Kiwi had a sudden urge to topple his grandfather, to dump the elder overboard—maybe that would shake something loose in there or reconnect a wire. What was the point of growing so aged and limp that your mind couldn’t make a fist around a name?” (350).
  • “Her dead body floating. Her dead face, the mask of it, rising and falling on the sea’s uneasy breath / Panthers found and finished her in the cattails. Wind unstitched her skeleton. Weeds sprayed outward from the heart-shaped wreck of her pelvis; a sinkhole opened beneath her and gave way with the suddenness of caved ice, swallowing her bones” (361).
  • “Our mom, as stern and all-seeing as she could often seem, would do us this great favor of pretending to be credulous when we faked sick. Mom cooed sincerely over our theatrical moanings and coughs. She would push our hair back from our cool liar’s scalps and bring us noodles and icy mainland colas as if happy for an excuse to love us like this” (394).


About Kelsey Maki

writer and English professor
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