On the Bookshelf

Staffer: Tara D. McKinney, correspondent

What I read: “Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell

Synopsis: Ava Bigtree, her haunted sister, and incorrigible brother live on an island in the Florida Everglades in their family’s alligator-wrestling theme park, Swamplandia!

The wacky idea of the business was hatched by Ava’s grandfather and grandmother. The family has latched onto a fictitious Native American heritage and built the wildlife park around a mostly invented ancient family history, complete with artifacts in the Bigtree Historical Museum and Gift Shop. The most famous attraction is mother, Hilola Bigtree, and her daily dive into a pit of alligators. The children’s unusual childhood is overrun with swamp wildlife, daily alligator wrestling lessons and chores like mucking out the alligator pit. Every day a ferry full of tourists from the mainland come to gawk and wonder at the Bigtrees and their symbiotic relationship with the Everglades. Hilola’s unexpected illness sends the family into an emotional and financial nosedive as they try to come to terms with the loss of their mother and, consequently, their livelihood. The family drifts apart until Ava is the only one left on the island. She sets out on a surreal and perilous journey deep in the Everglades with a stranger as her guide in an attempt to put the pieces of the broken Bigtree family back together.

Stats: Published by Vintage in July 2011, 416 pages.

What I thought: Initially, I was really engrossed in this book. The imagery of the sticky, humid Everglades and ominous presence of alligators was delicious different and a little creepy to dive into. I felt almost itchy with bug bites and nauseated by the alligator’s bloody and decaying pit.

Ava Bigtree was a very relatable protagonist. As a 13-year-old girl trying to take her mother’s place as the star of the failing family business, she spoke volumes about pain and loss and having to grow up too fast. Her sister, Osceola begins to commune with ghosts and escape from the drudgery and isolation of island life by going on dates with her ghostly “lovers.” Kiwi Bigtree, Ava’s older brother, ends up defecting to a competing amusement park, World of Darkness, in order to earn money to try and save the family business. Their father, Chief Bigtree, disappears entirely leaving Ava in the care of her frequently absent sister and completely absent brother.

The book had elements of magical realism and almost read like a young adult novel. The author’s clever invention of a theme park based on Hell, World of Darkness, was well-written and, at times, funny. The abject neglect by the Bigtree patriarch of his children saddened and disgusted me, especially since at times the children were left to eat rotten food and had no formal schooling. Though intelligent, their only source of intellectual stimulation came from an abandoned library boat filled with outdated, mildewed materials.

Ava’s naivete and resulting loss of innocence was very disturbing, luckily the author chose not to go into graphic detail during that part of the story. I felt that the book could have been more successful without her getting hurt. It would have been more of a survivor/adventure story. At the same time, it did seem like a foregone conclusion that something bad would happen to Ava once she was abandoned by her loved ones.

I can’t say that I loved the book. I will say that I liked it and would read more by Karen Russell, such as “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.”

“Swamplandia!” left me feeling kind of let down, uncomfortable, and with a little bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

What I’m reading next: “The Neighbors are Watching” by Debra Ginsberg.