Best Book by a Local Author (2011)


Karen Russell's debut novel is so impressive that Miami should drop the nickname Magic City and go with Swamplandia. Her book of the same name follows the Bigtrees, a family of gator wrestlers struggling to keep their Everglades tourist attraction open. Orphaned by cancer and poverty, teen daughter Ava ventures deep into the Glades to rescue her sister Osceola, who has run off to elope with a dredgeman's ghost. Ava's trek down the River of Grass becomes emblematic of the murky period between youth and adulthood, the blur between the supernatural and the natural, the dizziness of a place in flux. Russell's prose is impressive, and with Swamplandia!, she plows new literary ground. If it had a name, the genre might be called "swamp gothic" for its traces of Joseph Conrad, Flannery O'Connor, and even Hitchcock. Russell is also quick to recognize South Florida's notorious eccentric side, something she describes in interviews as our "pretty short commute to strangeness." But unlike Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen, Russell doesn't just jeer at Miami's weird characters and mores. She eulogizes them. If you've ever zigzagged your bike around the gators in Shark Valley, Swamplandia! will make nostalgia well up in your throat: "A tumor-headed buzzard cocked its head and looked at us behind the café glass, not quizzically like a sparrow or a gull, but with a buzzard's bored wisdom," she writes, "and I imagined then that this bird, too, must also know the story, and that all the quiet trees and clouds had always known the story." When people ask you what it was like growing up in South Florida, just hand them this book.


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