When I first heard about Swamplandia! I knew I wanted to read it. Set in the Florida Everglades the story revolves around a family that owns a gator-wrestling park. How cool does that sound?! And I read that the main character was a 13-year old girl, and I am usually quite the sucker for child-heros.
What I hadn’t expected was a book filled with so much surreal, almost magical encounters with death, ghosts, red-colored gators and boat rides to the underworld. And yet this book is so grounded in the dirty reality of the Bigtree family’s situation that it never verges on cheesy or over-the-top. The story introduces us to the family’s life as they own a (mostly) successful alligator theme park, where they sell concessions, wrestle gators, have a museum of old family artifacts and their mother headlines the show with her swimming with the seth’s (alligators) act. Eva, our young protagonist is her understudy and biggest fan. But we soon watch the family struggle, falter and ultimately come apart at the seems after the mother’s early death due to cancer.
The novel reads almost like two books, one with Eva desperately trying to pick up the pieces and save Swamplandia! from bankrupcy, and her sister from leaving home to elope with her ghost boyfriend. While other chapter are narrated by Kiwi, the older brother who leaves the family’s island to seek employment and his GED on the mainland, trying to save Swamplandia! in his own way. The two different perspectives provide a kind of break for the reader from the other life, but for me it took a while before I started to enjoy the chapters narrated by Kiwi, and even find the subtle humor in them.
My favorite scene in the whole book is the first time Eva swims with the alligators, it’s such a scary and thrilling read!
This is the first full novel written by Karen Russell, and I absolutely adored it. I will definitely be checking out any other book she authors in the future. Her vivid use of language and setting were, um, awesome. I loved this book.