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. – Goodreads
You’re not exactly going to have a normal childhood if you grow up wrestling alligators in a Florida swamp. But even by these standards, the Bigtree family is anything but ordinary. The story starts as Swamplandia!, an alligator-wrestling family’s theme park, is in its decline. The park is located on an island off the Florida coast and houses up to 100 alligators (along with various other animals) at a given time. The park boasts a champion alligator-wrestler – Hilola Bigtree, wife to Chief Bigtree and mother to our main characters, Ava, Osceola and Kiwi Bigtree.
It sounds like a rich, exciting setting, doesn’t it? But within the first hundred pages they’ve lost their champion alligator wrestler, Hilola Bigtree to cancer, and the park’s founder (and the children’s grandfather) Sawtooth Bigtree to the mental labyrinth of old age. Not only that, but another amusement park has opened up on the mainland that steals their audience away. It’s a confluence of unfortunate circumstances that creates a variety of negative effects on Hilola’s husband, Chief Bigtree, and their three children. It’s not long before the audience begins to falter, the park is temporarily closed, Chief Bigtree disappears to the mainland in search of “investors,” and the oldest sibling, Kiwi, has run away in search of more viable economic prospects to support the family.
The book started strong. I loved learning about alligators (particularly after playing with a baby gator named Elvis when I was in Louisiana – go here if you missed my pic) and imagining what it would be like to grow up watching your mother dive into a pit of live gators night after night. The potential of this fictional landscape is immense. I expected a sense of the magical, even if it wasn’t magical realism. With such an overstated setting, how could there not be?
Unfortunately the magic I got wasn’t the kind I was hoping for. Ossie, the middle child, becomes obsessed with the occult – going to far as to begin “dating” a series of ghosts. At first it seems this is just a socially isolated teen’s imagination running riot. Until it isn’t, and soon her fantasies have taken over, and whether they’re real or not, they’re creating real-life problems for her and her sister.
But I think the biggest difficulty I had with this book was that it opened on such a down note, and every time you think things are looking up, something else goes wrong. Which isn’t to say stories have to be happy to be good – they don’t. But I think it would have really helped if the story had opened earlier so we could have experienced the park’s heyday and seen Hilola as an gator wrestler and mother before her death. This would have helped the reader become more invested in her family and home. But because she is gone, with Grandpa Bigtree and the park following, it’s hard to want to stick with the story to find out what happens. It’s just a real downer.
Based on the description of this book, I expected: Quirky kids. A setting fraught with contained threat (dangerous alligators handled as part of a show). A bit of magical realism and probably some overcoming of obstacles – real or imagined. Such potential for a thoroughly enjoyable literary romp.
What I got: a book that, while beautifully written, started on a down note and continued to descend from there. Neglected children. A depressing set of characters handling everything from mental instability to social awkwardness to dementia to assault to bankruptcy. Does that sound like fun?
I think this is a book that will appeal to a certain type of reader. If you are one who has the stamina for a story that twists and turns through dark territory but has passages of beautiful writing and does an amazing job of setting the scene, this is a book for you. Likewise if you are fascinated by the Florida swamplands and/or paranormal stories, there’s a lot here that will appeal to you. But if you like more entertaining books that have bright, shiny magic, this may turn out to be a bit disappointing. Many people I’ve talked to have loved this book, so if you feel like this is a story you’ll enjoy, don’t be deterred. I feel like it’s one you’ll either love or hate – but either way, it’ll leave a strong impression!
Author: Karen Russell
Published By: Vintage Books
Released: July 26, 2011
Genre: Fiction, Family, Character-Driven
Date Read: March 2-9, 2015
Rating: 5 or 6/10