By Karen Russell
Completed July 2, 2011
Journey to Swamplandia and meet the Bigtree family – a clan of alligator wrestlers and theme park owners whose existence depends on gullible tourists desiring to see the unbelievable. The Bigtrees’ lives turn upside down, however, when Hilola Bigtree dies from ovarian cancer. Hilola was the main attraction – a petite woman who could tape shut an alligator’s mouth in 30 seconds and swan dive into a pit of alligators unscathed. While Hilola’s death takes a toll on the park, it most profoundly affects her surviving family – her husband Chief and children Kiwi, Osceola and Ava.
With the park losing tourists and their home missing Hilola, the remaining Bigtree family begins a fast deterioration. Kiwi runs off the mainland to find work at a competing theme park to help pay off Swamplandia’s debts, while Chief takes one of his long business trips. Osceola, enjoying newfound freedom, becomes fascinated with spiritualism and believes she can date ghosts – to the point where she runs off one night to elope with a ghost named Louis Thanksgiving.
That leaves 13-year-old Ava alone – until The Bird Man arrives. Allegedly hired to help locals clear off birds from their islands, Ava befriends The Bird Man, and together they begin a several-day journey to a place called The Underworld to find Osceola and bring her home.
The majority of the book is told from Ava’s perpsective, and true to her age, she sees things in a naive way. As the story progresses, her naivete turns to scorching reality. The reader sees what’s coming, but young Ava does not. The last 100 pages of Swamplandia! will have you turning the pages in dread, hoping your worst fears for this young heroine do not come true.
It would be easy to dismiss this book as too fantastic with ghost lovers and swamp living, but Karen Russell does a tremendous job making it all seem very real. Her ability to describe the people and places of Swamplandia suck you into a vortex that you don’t want to leave until the last page is read. At the heart of it all, Swamplandia! is a coming of age tale that focuses on the love of family. With its gothic feel and Florida setting, I enjoyed this story and can’t wait to read more by this talented young writer. ( )
Swamplandia! is set in Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands – an area in southwest Florida that is largely uninhabited and teeming with Florida nature. While you may not want to visit Ten Thousand Islands in person (bugs and alligators abound!), you can take a virtual visit online. Enjoy!