Before I start, though, a comment on the cover for the hardcover copy of the book, which is not the one I read or the one shown here. I was not really clear about whether this book is considered appropriate for young adults or not (probably), but the hardcopy cover makes Swamplandia! look like a children’s book, showing a very young girl piggyback on a character who looks somewhat like the Mad Hatter, both watching an alligator. Let me warn you that Swamplandia! is definitely not for young children.
Thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree and her family live on an island in a hokey-sounding amusement park in the Florida Everglades called Swamplandia! There, they dress up as Native Americans (their grandfather, who founded the park, was a German-American farmer from Ohio) and breed and wrestle alligators. Ava’s mother Hilola was the main attraction until she became ill with cancer and eventually died.
Since then the family has tried to cope with its grief while also attempting to save the floundering park. Homeschooled and with little contact with the mainland, the Bigtree kids have been raised in a sort of dream land. They all possess a thorough and subversive knowledge of the history of Florida and of its flora and fauna but not many skills for dealing with the outside world. Kiwi spends almost all his time reading, Osceola believes she has a ghost lover, and Ava is aiming to become a world-famous alligator wrestler.
When tourists stop arriving on the ferry, Chief Bigtree, the children’s father, makes one of his mainland journeys to raise money to save the park, but not before Kiwi apparently abandons them to get a job with the park’s competitor, The World of Darkness. Sixteen-year-old Osceola and Ava are left alone on the island until Osceola floats away on an old barge to join her lover.
Frantic to save Osceola, young Ava joins up with a mysterious man named the Bird Man, who claims to know his way into hell, which is where Ava assumes she must go to bring Osceola back from her ghost lover. As our apprehension grows, we follow Ava’s journey while periodically cutting over to observe Kiwi’s serio-comic adventures at the hell-themed World of Darkness.
Russell creates a lush world in Swamplandia! and a compelling narrator in the innocent/wise Ava. The language of the novel is gorgeous, its heroine engaging. You will find yourself immersed in a damp world bursting with life, and you won’t want to leave it until you know what happens to Ava.