The Bigtree alligator wrestling dynasty is in decline and Swamplandia!, their island home in the Florida Everglades 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 and beautiful star attraction, has just died; her sister is having an affair with a ghost called the Dredgeman; her Grandpa Sawtooth has been sent to the mainland to an old folk's home; her brother has secretly defected to The World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep the family afloat; and her father, the Chief, is AWOL. To save them, 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. Swamplandia! is a dark and mythic story, bursting with energy and an unstoppable inventiveness, by a writer with an astonishingly original and exuberant imagination.
Guest Reviewer: Carl Hiaasen
Carl Hiaasen was born and raised in Florida. He is the author of twelve novels, including the bestselling Star Island
, Nature Girl
, Skinny Dip
, Sick Puppy
, and Lucky You
, and three bestselling children’s books: Hoot
, and Scat
. He also writes a weekly column for The Miami Herald
This was the first time I’ve read Karen Russell’s work, and I was dazzled. It’s very rare, among the tonnage of manuscripts and galleys that land upon one’s desk, to come across a young novelist so inventive and versatile, yet so thoroughly in control. Also, I’m a sucker for any plot line that features man-eating reptiles. Swamplandia!
is the story of Ava Bigtree, a 12-year-old alligator wrestler who embarks on an improbable journey through the mangrove wilderness of southwest Florida in search of a lost sister. Young Osceola has run off with a ghost-figure named Louis Thanksgiving, and only Ava knows where to look for them, dreading what she might find. Passages of this fine novel call to mind Conrad, Garcia Marquez and even – for those who have kids – Judy Blume. There’s not a forgettable character in the cast, from Ava’s flamboyant father, Chief Bigtree, who runs the family’s failing tourist trap, to the bedraggled and cryptic Bird Man, who guides Ava on her harrowing trip.
Having spent many days in the Ten Thousand Islands, I was enchanted by Russell’s dream-like descriptions of the tangled and serpentine creeks, the funky and exotic flora, the long stare of circling buzzards. Her prose is both shimmering and stark: “A huge hole in the middle of the ceiling opened onto a clear night sky; it looked as if some great predator had peeled the thatched roof back, sniffed once and lost interest.”
Or the way she describes a “cauldron” of moths with “sapphire-tipped wings, a sky-flood of them…They had fixed wings like sharp little bones, these moths, and it was astonishingly sad when you accidentally killed one.”
I can’t recall the last time I came across a character who shines as brightly as Ava, or a first novel that made such a rich and lasting impression.