Tag Archives: Karen Russell

Dreaming of Warmer Places and New Literary Travel Adventures

Dreaming of balmy weather and tropical sunsets in Miami Beach, Florida.
Dreaming of balmy weather and tropical sunsets in Miami Beach, Florida.

January. It’s the same routine every year. The relatives go home, the last toasts to the new year have been made, and I’m feel slightly blue–partly because my kids have left and partly because it’s been crazy cold here in Minnesota.  It didn’t get above -11 on Monday.  I’m talking Siberia cold.

Though it’s a bit of a letdown when the holiday frenzy is over, the quiet time of January provides a time to reflect on what I’ve done over the last year, new things I’d like to do this year, and after enough procrastination, to get fired up to do a few of those things.  Since it’s been too frosty to go out, I’ve had plenty of time to hunker down and “reflect” (okay that’s my word for not getting to work). I looked back at the first post I made on this blog, which was called “Book Club Traveler” then, and I’m glad I took the time to revisit it.  I always have giant lists this time of year of all the things I wish I had accomplished, a lot of “should-have-done this and why-didn’t-I-do-that,” things I need to do now. But looking back a couple of years at those first days of blogging, I’m feeling pretty good, optimistic even. My goal was to encourage readers to take their love of literature to the next level and actually travel to the places they read about. I concluded my first post with: “So, this blog will explore the places where literature and travel intersect, how to escape with a good book and understand the places we travel, with or without a book group, through the eyes of authors who have gone there before us. Let’s get out of the living room and hit the road.”

I got enough positive feedback on the concept and enough comments like, “I wish my BeatenPage_12book club would do that,” that I gradually I came to believe that the concept was worthy of a book. And, as a result, Off The Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs and Girls on Getaways (Chicago Review Press) came out last May, hence the new name of the blog. The book features 15 U.S. destinations with essays, an extensive reading list, and a detailed itinerary for each.  People always ask what was my favorite destination.  In January, my favorite getaway is South Beach/Miami, Florida.  I’ve written several posts about that trip like this and this.  It was just arduous doing research there as you can see from this video.  Notice that no one is wearing bulky sweaters or long johns.

However, if you’re dreaming of Florida right now, but not exactly getting there as soon asdotr you’d like, pick up any book by Carl Hiassen for a crazy look at south Florida, especially Miami; Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief; Peter Mathiessen’s Shadow Country about the Florida frontier; or Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! I’m snuggled in with new books to read and dreaming up potential new adventures for the year based on those books. One benefit of travel and reading is that even if I’m home in the deep freeze, I can conjure up previous tropical sojourns to warm my heart if not my fingers and toes.

Shadow Country and Swamplandia! in Florida's Ten Thousand Islands

Grinning gators galore in the Everglades.

If you’re a fan of Peter Matthiessen’s National Book Award winner, Shadow Country, you

Smallwood Store, scene of E.J. Watson's murder.

may already have taken a day out of a Florida vacation and traveled to the Ten Thousand Islands area of southwest Florida to get a look at where the story happened.  Shadow Country is a fictionalized account of the story of the notorious real-life Everglades sugar cane planter and outlaw E. J. Watson at the turn of the 20th century.  But now, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (the fictional story of Ava Bigtree, a 12-year-old alligator wrestler who embarks on a strange journey through the area’s mangrove wilderness in search of her lost sister) creates another reason to investigate this section of the Everglades. So, last week a friend and I made the two-hour trip from Miami (it’s much closer to Naples on Florida’s Gulf Coast) to get a view of the mysterious watery world of these books.

We set out with fishing guide, Captain Rodney Raffield, from his home on Chokoloskee Island. Unlike the northern saw grass portions of the Everglades where the water is fresher, this section consists mostly of thousands mangrove islands in saltwater near the Gulf of Mexico. The Watson place is now a remote National Park Service campsite.  There isn’t

What's left of the Watson Place.

much left of the homestead except a huge vat where they boiled sugar cane to make syrup.  However, the Smallwood Store, the site where E.J. Watson was murdered by his neighbors, is still there on Chokoloskee Island and open as a


A boat ride around the area offers an impressive glimpse of the seemingly unending expanse of the Everglades.  To a visitor, there seem to be very few landmarks, so it was a pleasure to travel with Raffield, an affable fifth-generation resident of the area and a former stone crab fisherman who knows the place like the back of his hand and has plenty of stories to prove it.  As we wound our way through the mangrove islands, which are really just clumps of tangled roots rather than solid ground, we saw huge numbers of nesting birds. And, the alligators lolling on every open bank (some as much as twelve feet long), were the kind one might see on a tour of Russell’s fictional alligator park Swamplandia! Neither sea nor land, the Ten Thousand Islands make the perfect setting for Ava’s ghostly and gothic travels through the backwaters.

White pelicans near Rabbit Pass Key, Ten Thousand Islands, Florida

It’s a place where anything could happen… even something as unlikely as we non-fishers casting our lines for a few minutes and catching a “mess a fish,” as Raffield says. We then hustled over to the Havana Café in Chokoloskee, where they cooked ‘em up and we ate ’em, back on solid ground.