Author: Karen Russell
Publisher: Vintage Books
Source: Personal purchase
The Bigtree alligator wrestling dynasty is in decline — think Buddenbrooks set in the Florida Everglades — and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, is swiftly being encroached upon by a sophisticated competitor known as the World of Darkness.
Ava, a resourceful but terrified twelve year old, must manage seventy gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief. Her mother, Swamplandia!’s legendary headliner, has just died; her sister is having an affair with a ghost called the Dredgeman; her brother has secretly defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their sinking family afloat; and her father, Chief Bigtree, is AWOL. To save her family, Ava must journey on her own to a perilous part of the swamp called the Underworld, a harrowing odyssey from which she emerges a true heroine.
The Bigtree family lives on an island near Florida. Grandpa Sawtooth Bigtree has been put in a mental institution due to his “dementia” problem. Hilola Bigtree, the mother of the Bigtree children we witness the stories of, has died due to cancer. Her husband and three children who are left behind are in a very tough situation because Hilola is the star of Swamplandia; people come to see her wrestle with alligators. As if Swamplandia losing its appeal and star aren’t enough, they have competition: a theme park called the World of Darkness. The father (Chief) and the three children (Kiwi, Ossie and Ava) all have their own solutions for their problems, of course…
The Chief is planning the innovations they can bring to Swamplandia. The oldest child, Kiwi, says that they should just sell the park but when nobody else in his family agrees to it, he goes to the mainland and starts working at the World of Darkness in order to “check out the competition.” At the same time, he has a desire to learn and dreams of going to college. Getting weirder and weirder after their mother’s passing, Ossia gets into spiritism in hopes of being able to contact Hilola. She talks to spirits and even dates some of them. The youngest, Ava, on the other hand is set on becoming as good an alligator wrestler as their mother and saving the park.
Karen Russell is an author who is rather crafty at bringing together fantasy and reality. She has a very real way of showing how people hold onto places they think they belong to, how some of them do just the opposite and run as far away as they can. She shows how different people deal with the same problem in different ways and none of their ways can actually be considered “wrong,” especially when dealing with grief.
There’s the idea of the naivety of childhood and what dangers it can bring throughout the story. Accordingly, what happens to Ava when a guy called Bird Man is supposedly helping her find Ossie, Ossie being left on the altar while she’s on the verge or marrying a spirit make the reader angry, worried, revolt all at the same time. If you’re looking for a weird book that brings together fantasy and reality in a way that might hurt your insides, Swamplandia! might just be what you’re looking for.